Report (First Day)

Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 4:17 pm on 17th March 2009.

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Clause 1: Democratic arrangement of principal local authorities

Amendment 1

Moved by Lord Tope

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, after "duty" insert "to use reasonable endeavours"

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 4:36 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I move Amendment 1 and will speak to Amendments 2, 7, 14 and 16. I again declare my interest as a councillor and a member of the executive in the London Borough of Sutton and—perhaps because of that—as a member of the Sutton Partnership Board, the local strategic partnership; the Safer Sutton Partnership Service, which is the local CDRP; and numerous other bodies that councillors inevitably find themselves on.

More pleasantly, I thank the Minister and her officials on behalf of my noble friends for the considerable lengths to which they have gone to help us to understand the purpose and intentions of some parts of the Bill; to persuade us of the virtues of other parts of the Bill; and generally to convince us not to be a nuisance at this stage. The Minister has been partially successful in that. We certainly have a better understanding. I am not certain that we have a greater liking for some parts of the Bill and, inevitably, there are some parts on which we simply disagree. That disagreement will be resolved in the normal way in a democracy. We are grateful for the lengths to which the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, have gone to work with us on this.

Chapter 1 relates to the duty to promote democracy. First, for the avoidance of any misunderstanding, my noble friends and I have no disagreement whatever with the importance of promoting democracy. Indeed, most of us have spent most of our adult lives doing exactly that: trying to encourage an active and participatory democracy; helping people to understand the system—for all its virtues and faults—better; and to be able to work in that way. We have no problem whatever with that.

Secondly, there were suggestions at an earlier stage that we did not recognise that there is a problem. Yes, there is a problem. We certainly recognise that. It is generally accepted that, for a range of reasons, local government has improved hugely in its efficiency and effectiveness in the last decade or so.

Sadly, the public perception of local government has not improved at the same rate. There are reasons for that, which are rather deeper than a simple lack of understanding by the public. Of course it is good, right and proper that the public should understand how local democracy works in all its many aspects and that local authorities should do whatever they can and more to promote that, but there is a more fundamental problem than seems to be addressed in the Bill. It is very difficult to persuade people to be interested and to read something when they are simply not interested. You can explain—most local authorities explain their processes and procedures—but if the public are not interested or have a deeply cynical view because the local authority may be simply unable to do what they think it should do, no amount of well written literature or excellent websites will convince people to take an interest in that in which they are not interested.

So we have some reservations, to put it no stronger than that, about making it a statutory duty for principal local authorities to promote democracy. We have no problem with their doing so, indeed, we would encourage them to do so, but making it a statutory duty seems to us to be missing the solution to what is a fundamental problem. Nevertheless, we accept that the Government want to make that a statutory duty and that in doing so, they are responding to many representations made to them, not least by the Councillors Commission, to which the Minister referred many times. We share the reservations of the Local Government Association, which, in accepting the need for a statutory duty, stated:

"The LGA believes the Government could be much lighter in its approach by just setting out the ... duties and then leaving it to local authorities to decide what works best for their communities and residents".

That sums up our position very well. It is for local authorities to determine what is best to suit local circumstances, local culture and local conditions.

The Minister has assured us throughout previous stages that the Government intend a light-touch approach; that they are trying very hard to curb the natural instinct to be prescriptive. I entirely accept that. I am certain that that is the Minister's intention and strong wish, but it all depends on the guidance. As usual at this stage of a Bill, we have not seen the guidance. We do not know what is in it. Inevitably, as guidance is written, there is a need to explain a bit more what is meant, or even what is not meant. As that goes on, gradually it becomes more and more descriptive and prescriptive.

Until we see the guidance, final reassurance is not there. Guidance is guidance by definition, but inevitably it becomes a standard by which any local authority is judged. If a local authority is judged to be in some way falling short of the standard in the guidance, which may be simply by perception because the local authority is unable or unwilling to do what petitioners want it to do, for instance, it is judged by that. What is, I am sure, a genuine desire to be light touch gets heavier as we go along. Those are our concerns and that is why we would much rather take the position of the Local Government Association of making it a statutory duty but leaving local authorities much freer to determine how they fulfil it.

Amendments 1, 7, 14 and 16 add the words "to use reasonable endeavours" at appropriate places in the Bill. That is in part to try to provide some reassurance to local authorities against the dangers that I have just described and, secondly, because of the need to balance the duty with the cost. The Minister said in Committee that the Bill provides for the extra cost. With respect, a Bill or even an Act, does not in itself provide any extra money. It suggests what might be the total cost of its provision; it does not give local authorities any money. I oppose specific grants for specific tasks. However, it means that any additional resources are wrapped up in the general settlement and invisible—indeed impossible—to discern. In earlier days, as a leader of the council, I was constantly being told, when any new duty came in, that it was in the SSA. We do not have SSAs any more but the system is still there and any additional resources for extra duties are always said to be buried somewhere in the settlement and nobody can ever find them.

That might well be the case. Local authorities fortunate enough to receive any additional funding—small as it would be—would have it as part of their general grant settlement and would have to balance its use with all the other increasing demands placed on local authorities these days. Even those authorities fortunate enough not to be floor authorities, would not necessarily recognise any benefits simply by the enactment of this Bill. Many local authorities, particularly in London, are what is called floor authorities and will not get any additional resources anyway. Using "reasonable endeavours" is a qualification that would enable local authorities, I hope, to act in a proportionate way in meeting their statutory duty and not in a way that some of their residents might expect them to do, particularly if they are dissatisfied with the outcome.

Amendment 2, which is a little different, requires a principal local authority to promote:

"The duty of members of the authority as democratically elected representatives".

In Committee, in support of the Bill, the Minister referred several times to the recommendations of the Councillors Commission. The clause recommends the commission's recommendations 1a and 1b—they are encapsulated in the Bill—but they are only some of its recommendations. Recommendation 1c said,

"raising interest in and providing information on how to stand as a councillor".

Recommendation 1d said,

"proactively promoting the role of councillor and the activities of elected members".

Therefore, the total recommendation is not fully met in this clause. I imagine that the Minister will say that it is adequately covered by Clause 1(2). However, such was the importance given to it by the Councillors Commission that a passage in the report supporting their recommendation said,

"there exists a relative consensus that local authorities should play a greater and more proactive role in councillor recruitment, though it is clear that this should supplement rather than replace the role of political parties".

It went on to speak of the All-Party Parliamentary Local Government Group's report, which echoed that view, and concluded that councils should do more to encourage people locally to consider putting themselves forward for election. It argued that councils should have a formal duty to do so, recommending that there should be a new legal duty on councils, possibly on the returning officer, to provide information about the role of councillor in order to support recruitment.

Those were actually the Councillors Commission's recommendations. Having them in Clause 1(2) in a rather general sense does not, in any way, give them sufficient regard. If the Minister is rightly going to cite what the Councillors Commission wants, and incorporate one part of its recommendations in the Bill, the other part is of at least equal importance and should also be recognised and included. That is the purpose of Amendment 2.

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour 4:45 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I enjoyed the contribution that we have just heard, which comes from the coal face. The noble Lord is actively involved in and very knowledgeable about local government as it operates at this time. However, from my experience from long ago, my first question when I read,

"insert 'to use reasonable endeavours'", in Amendment 1 was: why is it necessary to put those words into the clause? Is it because, if they were not in it, there would be the fear that unreasonable endeavours would be used?

I cannot imagine a council, council officers and those in the general milieu of the local government scene in any area not using reasonable endeavours. If the noble Lord, Lord Tope, is implying that no endeavours would be made at all without that phrase, I beg to differ. More than once in Committee and on Report, the spectre has been raised of too much prescription and too much law being laid down as to what one can and cannot do. The Minister is in the position of being damned if she does and damned if she does not.

The clause and, indeed, the Bill make a reasonable endeavour to be clear. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, is saying, "That is all very well as far as it goes, but I want to egg the pudding and gild the lily". Where do we stop? There is no doubt that, from his experience and mine, the day we finish with this Bill we will think of 100 ways in which it could have been improved but we did not do so. In other words, the second thought is always there. I simply ask whether this amendment seeks to do too much.

Amendment 2 would insert the words,

"the duty of members of the authority as democratically elected representatives".

All the members of the authority are democratically elected, unless the noble Lord, Lord Tope, can tell me of circumstances in which a member of a local authority is not democratically elected. Again, I ask—I do not want to make too much of this—why the noble Lord and his colleagues think that these amendments are necessary. I think that they are superfluous and I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for the gracious way in which he introduced this first debate on Report. We went over this Bill in great detail in Committee and I am very glad to share our understanding with him. Clearly we are all very much in favour of promoting democracy and we recognise that there is a problem in so far as we would like to see a livelier and more engaged local democracy in our communities. We have that common ground between us, so I will carry on trying to persuade him to support me on things with which he may, strangely, disagree.

In this short debate, I will address the noble Lord's amendments and speak to my own and I will briefly recap what the duties to promote democracy set out to achieve. Clause 1 places a duty on all principal local authorities—including county and district councils, unitary authorities and London boroughs—to promote an understanding of their decision-making arrangements and those of various other public authorities that provide or influence the provision of services in their area and to promote existing opportunities to participate in those arrangements. Local authorities are expected to promote such understanding to people who live, work or study in the area. It is an ambitious intention, but, as it is set out here, it is relatively modest. I take my noble friend's point and should say that we have tried to balance it so that it is not overloaded by detail and certainly not overloaded by prescription.

In essence, we want to encourage greater involvement in local democracy and we start from the premise that there is a lack of understanding. We aim to ensure that people know what services the council and other public bodies operating locally provide, what councillors do, how decisions about services are made and how people can participate in and influence them. People will then stand a better chance of getting involved in local politics, which, as I have said, means standing not just as a local councillor but also as a magistrate or school governor. The duty is intended to ensure that the relevant information is available to those who seek it and that it is promoted beyond people who would normally get involved to those who are less engaged and therefore underrepresented.

In Grand Committee, we spent some time discussing the evidence and I do not want to repeat what I said at that time. The Councillors Commission, having considered the evidence, thinks that this is a vital way forward in the effort to revitalise local democracy. Indeed, evidence continues to come forward. Recently, officials have been seeking to add a question to the citizenship survey about what people think of their councillors, but the proposal had to be dropped because in the trials that we carried out not enough people knew who their councillor was or what they did for the responses to be meaningful. That is a serious finding.

Also in Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Best—he is not in his place—speaking as the president of the LGA, said that the duty to promote democracy should be recognised as a core function of local authorities and that the association supported the duty on the basis that it was not overly prescriptive. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, gracefully acknowledged, we are trying hard to achieve a light-touch approach. The duties are not prescriptive; they set out the scope of what we are asking local authorities to do, but we have not suggested how they should go about it. For all the reasons that we have given in debates in this House over many years, we do not lightly seek to put duties on local government.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, pointed out the dichotomy between the measurable achievements of local government —the real successes that we have seen in improving services as measured by the CPA over the past decade—and the perception of the community that local government is somehow still not up to the mark or even failing. Local government has faced many challenges over the past years and it is frustrating for those working in the service to know that their achievements have not been accepted by the local community. We are trying to address issues of reputation and perception as well as seeking to engage more people through attracting them to serve in local government. We need to do this for all the reasons that we have discussed so that we can ensure that future councils are shaped by a more diverse range of people who reflect the views and experiences of the full community.

However, what is gratifying is how local government has already responded positively to the duty to involve, which comes into force in April. It marks the next step in making sure that people have the opportunity to become involved because they know how to do so. We heard examples of councils doing something along the lines of what we seek; indeed, many are doing it very well. However, it is not done well or at all in other places. Therefore, in the duty in Clause 1, we are trying to ensure that every person, no matter where they live, is able readily to access the information and knows how to seek it out. We want all local authorities to see promoting democracy as a positive and essential part of their core business. We recognise that it is a new responsibility, although it is bound to build on existing work. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, is right to say that we have addressed it in terms of a new burden and so have provided additional funding. I take his point that the funding is not ring-fenced, but it has been provided. By requiring local authorities to promote understanding of the council and the connected functions of other related authorities, we seek to send a clear message that encouraging local people to become involved in shaping the services that they receive really does matter and can make a difference.

I understand where the noble Lord is coming from in his Amendments 1, 7, 14 and 16. We debated the issue in Committee. The concept of "reasonable endeavours" is perfectly sensible but he will not be surprised when I say that it muddies what we see as a clear and unambiguous duty on local authorities, especially as authorities would be expected to do only what is reasonable to meet any duty, including this one, unless there was some absolute standard of compliance on the face of the legislation, which is certainly not the case here. The provisions are intended to set out the scope of the expectation but with no detail about how local authorities should discharge their duty; we trust in the ability, creativity and commitment of local authorities to develop the best approaches to putting that duty into action.

Amendment 2 seeks to clarify the information about councillors that local authorities will be required to provide. I agree that this is an important part of what we are asking local authorities to do. We set out previously that we considered it essential that the role and the functions of councillors should be covered. The noble Lord has anticipated my reply, because in Clause 1(2)(b) there is a duty to promote understanding of,

"what members of the principal local authority do".

However, he was right to make the argument and to refer back to the Councillors Commission, because the statements in the subsections indicate a proactive commitment to promoting democracy. As my noble friend said, we do not want to overload the Bill with too much detail—we are caught between a rock and a hard place however we do this—but the spirit of the Councillors Commission lives on in that clause.

Amendments 5 and 6 are brought forward by the Government in response to issues raised in Committee. This is an example of how much we value the experience on the other side of the Chamber; I certainly listened to the arguments. One of the most important debates that we had was around the need for the duty to promote democracy to capture partnership working. We are tabling these government amendments to seek to make explicit our intention that the duties to promote democracy include the work of local authorities and connected authorities which is reflected and developed in partnership with others. This may be the first time that we have captured that in legislation. It is important and I am grateful to noble Lords for promoting the debate. Whether this is through a formal partnership arrangement such as CDRPs and LSPs, or a loose partnership that is set up for a specific issue, we want to ensure that they both fall within the scope of the duties to promote democracy defined in Clauses 1 and 2. This is a significant development. We have seen a flourishing of these partnerships in scope and diversity, particularly local strategic partnerships, which play a key role in the democratic and decision-making arrangements in relation to the community strategy, bringing together statutory bodies and the third sector, making vital decisions in support of the local area agreement process and so on.

There is a general sense in many places that these bodies are not transparent enough and that the general public have little awareness of what they do and thus, inevitably, little chance to influence or take part in them. So, as part of our commitment to greater openness and influence, we want to ensure that that no longer remains the case. This duty as a whole is designed so that local authorities will promote understanding of the opportunities for people to participate in and influence the making of decisions, as well as of their connected authorities, for the reasons that I have explained. It was recognised in our debates in Committee that this can be achieved in partnerships. We agreed that this should be recognised explicitly under this duty, and amendments were laid in Committee both to the main duty under Clause 1, where noble Lords sought to include a requirement to promote understanding of the democratic and decision-making arrangements of partnerships, and to the list of connected authorities under Clause 2, to which noble Lords sought to add specific partnerships.

I explained that the requirement to promote understanding of the local authorities and the connected authorities would be bound to include their involvement in partnership working, but I understood that what noble Lords really wanted to achieve was an explicit recognition of the important role that partnership working now plays in shaping services and the life of the community. We have therefore sought to find a way to amend the legislation that will achieve all our aims. It is not possible to name all relevant partnerships, or even specific partnerships. We have therefore expanded and clarified the definition of "democratic arrangements" so that it clearly includes work taken forward in partnership. The clause refers to,

"arrangements, in relation to any authority, for members of the public to participate in, or influence, the making of decisions", to which our amendment adds the words,

"by the authority (including the making of decisions by the authority in partnership or conjunction with any other person)".

That means that, where councils have a duty to promote the understanding of democratic arrangements and of Clauses 1 and 2, they will be required to provide information about how partnerships are composed, what they do, how they work and how they make their decisions as part of a partnership. That would apply to Clause 1 in relation to decision-making by the council and to Clause 2 in relation to decision-making by the connected authorities. The amendment will ensure that councils have to explain about, for example, the LSP's role in the local area, how that relates to the work of the council and the connected authorities and how the public can participate in or influence their decision-making.

I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is a useful and positive amendment that improves the Bill, that it clarifies the intentions behind the duty and that, essentially, it will improve the awareness of local people and their influence on the decision-making process as a whole.

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 5:00 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I thank the Minister for speaking to Amendments 5 and 6, which we welcome. She was right to refer to the quite considerable debate that we had at various points in Committee on the nature and role of partnerships. From my experience, if anything needs more explaining to and better understanding by the public, it is the partnerships that now exist, their ever increasing role and importance and the part that they play in the community. I am grateful to her for listening to the points that we made in Committee. We recognise the difficulties in meeting them in legislation and I thank her and her officials for their endeavours in trying to do so. I hesitate to say that this is an historic moment—that is perhaps a little over the top—but it is a significant step forward in legislation, and one that we welcome.

I must be a little less warm in my welcome for her comments on the amendments that I was speaking to, although they did not come as any great surprise. We are, however, at one in our desire to promote the understanding of democracy and to promote an active and engaged role in our local communities. We will continue to have the concerns that I expressed, at least until we see the guidance. That, I am afraid, is inevitable, because the devil is in the detail and the detail will be in the guidance. If the guidance truly encapsulates the light touch that the Minister genuinely wishes, then well and good—it will be helpful to local authorities. If it starts to go further than that, though, we will feel that our fears are justified. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn

Amendment 2 not moved.

Amendment 3

Moved by Baroness Warsi

3: Clause 1, page 2, line 2, at end insert—

"( ) the democratic arrangements of such connected authorities as the principal local authority considers appropriate"

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Shadow Minister (Community Cohesion), Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendment 13. I thank the Minister for her extensive meetings and correspondence as well as for what we on these Benches agree is a genuine desire to achieve agreement on the Bill. I also echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Tope; clearly all of us in this House are supportive of promoting local democracy to give local communities real information and, with that, real powers to influence and make decisions.

With this amendment we return—after a very long time, it seems—to the question of what it is that local authorities must promote. Opposition Amendment 3 is simple: it would add to Clause 1 the duty for a principal local authority to promote the understanding of,

"the democratic arrangements of such connected authorities as the principal local authority considers appropriate".

It was suggested in Grand Committee that the Opposition's approach to this duty was destructive. I do not feel that we need to rehearse all the same arguments as before, and I think our position is clear. Many parts of this Bill are unnecessary either because they increase the amount of box-ticking a local authority must perform, or because the provisions will not amount to very much at all in practice. However, I accept that this is not a universally shared view, and I have come back with an amendment which I hope will be seen as constructive.

It is not our view that local authorities should not promote understanding of the facilities and services available to local people. I believe that the more people are able to engage with their local communities and institutions, the bigger the benefits to those communities. I do not believe, however, that the needs of communities are best served by placing a highly detailed duty on local authorities, uniformly across the country and written in an Act of Parliament.

Amendment 3, therefore, would allow local authorities to assess for themselves which bodies connected to them were suffering from a lack of understanding or public promotion. They could then take steps accordingly. No doubt, the Government will be issuing guidelines, so local authorities will not be flying blind on this. They will have an idea of what is expected of them, but our approach would allow them discretion on how to implement it.

So, for example, in an area where the Magistrates' Association was running a successful outreach programme, the relevant local authority would not need to waste time and money running a duplicate programme. Equally, if a local authority felt that local people were underinformed about, for example, an integrated transport authority—a strong possibility—then it could step forward into that breach.

I have considered everything that was said in Grand Committee and thank the Minister for her detailed correspondence since then. I hope that my amendment can be accepted as a compromise. We have recognised the importance of the duty, and Amendment 3 adds to Clause 1 this extra consideration with regard to connected bodies. The duty will be in the Bill, so there is no need for Clauses 2, 3 and 4, which go into unnecessary detail. I hope that the Minister will agree with our proposals. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, this is the first time I shall have spoken on Report, so I shall declare appropriate interests as a member of Pendle Borough Council, of the executive of that council, and of various bodies—which nowadays I suppose we should call connected bodies—as a result of being on that council. I never got around to declaring, as everybody else did in Committee, how many years I spent on a local authority, partly because I thought that some noble Lords would think that that was a disadvantage—that because I had been there so long, I would be stuck in my ways, and not in line with this exciting modern thinking the Government are coming out with. For the record, however, it is 31 years, and if cumulative membership is included—of years when I have been on more than one principal authority—it is 52 years. That is all more information to horrify the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi.

I shall speak to Amendment 10 in the name of my noble friend, Lady Hamwee, who unfortunately cannot be here today. I am standing in for her—at least I am standing in for my noble friend Lord Tope, who is standing in for my noble friend—

Noble Lords:

He is right behind you, my Lords.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

Yes, my Lords, I am standing in for him, and he is standing in for my noble friend, Lady Hamwee. I shall do so for a while, though later in the proceedings, because I have the odd Back-Bench amendment in the same group as a Front-Bench amendment, I may have to retreat from the Front Bench. When I do that, it is not through any disagreement with my colleagues, but it is simply to observe the rules of procedure of the House.

I look forward with interest to the Minister's response to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. Although the Minister has not yet spoken to her amendments in this group, I will comment on them since they are identical to amendments I moved in Committee to include parish meetings and community meetings in Wales. Community meetings in Wales, of course, are exactly the same as parish meetings in England. I thank the Minister for tabling these amendments. The only difference is that she has got them in the right place—I had them in the wrong place. These are minor but useful matters; when what we say in Committee is listened to and acted on by the Government, however minor the subject, it makes us feel that at least it is worth while turning up.

Amendment 10 would include regional development agencies in the list of connected authorities. There was quite a lot of discussion about this in Committee, so I shall not go through it all again, but regional development agencies are becoming increasingly important as funding agencies and with the new arrangements to set up leaders' boards in places where they do not exist. To miss them out is simply to miss out an important part of the governance of the region, which has a considerable impact on local authorities. That is the purpose of Amendment 10.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 5:15 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for the way in which she opened the debate on her amendments. I am pleased to know that we share so many of the assumptions about the values of local authorities and democratic arrangements. What divides us is not principle but some aspects of process. I am very grateful for the way in which she debated the detail in Committee and made such a positive and important contribution. Where we differ is that the noble Baroness suggests a different way for local authorities to provide information to local people about the functions and democratic arrangements of public bodies that provide or shape public services in the area.

Amendment 3, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, would simply replace Clause 2, which defines the duty of the connected authorities, with a general requirement on local authorities to promote understanding of the democratic arrangements of the connected authorities that the local authority considers appropriate. I fully understand the intention behind the amendment.

Let me explain very briefly why Clause 2 is slightly repetitious given our earlier debates, and why we have sought to establish a list of connected authorities. It is simply because we want to be clear about the minimum extent and scope of the requirement. We want to be assured that everyone, no matter where they live, will be able to understand more than they do now about the public authorities in addition to the local council that affects their life. These public bodies impact directly on the key services—safety, health, education, transport, waste and economic prosperity—which, so far as the general public are concerned, work in mysterious ways. They are all services that people would like to know more about and, we argue, need to know more about. These services will all benefit from closer engagement with local people, as well as wider involvement and representation. They are on the list because they have asked to be on it—they want that greater engagement.

I wrote to noble Lords on 27 February to explain more fully the three criteria that we used in developing the list. First, the bodies included must have a strong presence in the local authority area; secondly, they must make decisions that are directly relevant to people in the local area, and therefore it is right that their governance arrangements are better known; and, thirdly, they must provide opportunities for the public to participate in or influence the making of decisions.

We have taken a broad view of the opportunities to participate because we think that both participative and representative routes are important ways to influence services. My letter explained that those opportunities vary between the different bodies, depending on their function and structure. Each organisation has designed mechanisms that suit its particular area of operation, and we certainly do not intend to alter that. These opportunities include a wide spectrum of involvement such as: contributing views and influencing policy, for example by taking part in consultations or panels; directly electing representatives; making representations to councillors and other representatives; and standing as a councillor or taking on other civic roles such as that of a school governor.

We want this duty to be appropriate and not overly burdensome. We do not want to impose on local authorities a long list of every public organisation that has an interest, however remote, in their area. It is always difficult to know where to draw the line, and some people may interpret the criteria slightly differently. However, as I say, we have aimed to reflect those bodies of interest to most local people. We believe that by so doing we can guarantee that the same opportunities exist for all communities. That is why I cannot accept the amendments to replace Clause 2, with its set of clear purposes and the lists of connected authorities, with the amendments which would leave it up to every local authority to choose how to proceed. That is not because we do not trust local authorities—far from it; the raft of freedoms and flexibilities in recent years stand witness to that—but because this is a new opportunity to open up parts of public life and policy which are so significant that they should be included in statute for all communities to take advantage of. There is consensus around this. The list has been drawn up in consultation with the LGA and the representatives of these bodies. They are content, indeed enthusiastic, to be included in the list.

I repeat that there is nothing in the legislation to stop councils promoting understanding of any other organisation that has a particular relevance in the area. Each local authority will decide how best it can fulfil this duty so as to complement the public relations work that the organisations do themselves. We seek a simple, single port of call provided by local authorities on behalf of organisations so that information is presented in a strategic and accessible manner, and consistency in the amount and quality of information available on the different bodies. The aim is not to replace the efforts that connected authorities already make in promoting themselves but to supplement and support that. I know that the noble Baroness was anxious about that. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in the previous debate: the statutory guidance must be proportionate and not over-prescriptive. That is a very important point to put on the record. We will encourage councils to work jointly with the connected authorities to maximise the benefit of any existing campaigns to promote the organisations, avoid duplication of effort, and extend the reach of these campaigns more widely than the bodies could do alone.

We appreciate the intention of Amendment 10, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, on regional development agencies, as they are, indeed, significant regional players. I reassure noble Lords on the critical point. If a local authority believes that the RDA structures and activities are relevant to its area, there is nothing at all to stop it promoting understanding about its work. However, RDAs are not active in every region and are certainly not active in the same way. They do not primarily engage directly with local people and therefore do not meet the relevant criteria. They do not meet the criteria for having a local presence and providing opportunities for people to influence and participate in shaping service decisions. However, given government Amendments 5 and 6, on partnership work, which we have just addressed, we would expect that partnership work with local authorities and RDAs would be covered already by the duty.

There is also the issue, which noble Lords have not raised, of the Homes and Communities Agency. That is on the list, and it could be argued that they are similar bodies. I want to explain why the HCA is there. It is a nascent organisation. Given the range of powers of the HCA and people's interest in its activities, we have erred on the side of caution and responded to the HCA, which wanted to be on the list. As the HCA matures and its processes become established, we would look to review its inclusion on the list.

I have taken the advice of the chief executive of the HCA, Sir Bob Kerslake, who has said:

"The vision of HCA is focused around people and places. To create the places where people want to live, work, shop and entertain themselves, you need to engage and involve the local communities to help shape, deliver and sustain the place they carry out all this activity in. HCA will be working with our delivery partners, especially the local authorities, to ensure that there is the opportunity, not a one off opportunity either, for appropriate local involvement in defining and delivering the type of place they want".

I am happy to have that on the record.

Government Amendments 11 and 12 are in response to the helpful reminder about parish meetings given by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in Grand Committee. Parish councils in England and community councils in Wales are included in the list of connected authorities under subsections (3) and (5) respectively. That means that principal authorities in two-tier areas in England and throughout Wales will be required to promote understanding of democratic arrangements at this tier of local government in their area. Where parishes exist in unitary areas in England, they will also count as connected authorities, and those councils will therefore be required to promote understanding of them to local people.

As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, pointed out, in some areas the democratic arrangements at parish and community level are carried out through parish or community meetings rather than through parish or community councils. We understand that leaving parish and community meetings off the list of connected authorities might, therefore, have led to a gap as regards our intention to include the range of democratic arrangements at the parish and community level. This government amendment, helpfully prompted by the noble Lord, seeks to plug that gap. I am very pleased that he is pleased with that. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Shadow Minister (Community Cohesion), Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her detailed response. I continue to have some concerns about the detail but, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

Amendment 4

Moved by Lord Low of Dalston

4: Clause 1, page 2, line 7, at end insert—

"( ) The duty under subsection (1) includes in particular a duty to provide relevant information in formats accessible to people with disabilities."

Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench

My Lords, noble Lords will recall that I moved the amendments in this group in Committee. I bring them back again today because I support the duties contained in Chapter 1 but I want to see disabled people receive the full benefit of them. The amendments would require authorities to provide relevant information in accessible formats. Those that did not do so would have to give an account of where they fell short each year—not so much naming and shaming but a confession of failure. That is meant as a gentle incentive to improve. If things went according to plan, no authority would ever have to make such a report.

In the Government's guidance for local authorities on the translation of publications which aim to cut down the amount spent on translation, Hazel Blears said:

"Of course, there will always be some circumstances in which translation is appropriate—for example, to enable particular individuals to access essential services like healthcare or participate in local democracy".

That seems to cover this case fairly and squarely, especially if we extend the imperatives of translation to accessibility. Everyone agrees that information to enable people to participate in local democracy is essential so we must make it as readily available to disabled people as it is to everyone else. Making this information available in Braille, audio or large print will not suddenly make blind and partially sighted people and those who are print-disabled in any other way more politically active, but unless democratic information is available in accessible formats, they cannot even get to first base and engage, even if they want to. Providing information in such formats may not be a sufficient condition, but it is certainly necessary.

I realise that the Government are well aware of the need to work hard to engage all kinds of people, and those elements of the Bill deserve our support. They are a genuine attempt to deal with a very difficult problem. I read very carefully what the Minister said in Committee. He said that the amendments were unnecessary because local authorities are already required by the Disability Discrimination Act to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people when providing services and delivering their functions. I am sorry to say that that provision does not appear to be working or, at least, to be working well enough.

In recent research carried out by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the organisation which I chair, a range of 22 local authorities around the UK were asked whether they could provide information, such as council tax bills, in accessible formats for blind and partially sighted people. Just 9 per cent—two authorities out of 22—had front-line staff who could answer the query. In most cases, the caller was directed to various departments to reach someone who knew the policy on accessible formats. More than a third said that they could not offer Braille or audio for people who could not read print. How are people to be expected to behave like responsible citizens in those circumstances?

I was grateful for the Minister's invitation in Committee to be involved in the guidance under Clause 6. I hope he will understand, however, that the fresh evidence from the RNIB of the extent of the problem makes me doubt whether guidance alone is the answer. We have had useful discussions since Committee and I know that the Minister is on our side. I look forward to hearing how he thinks we can secure real change. That is why I am bringing these amendments back, as the Minister knows, because I want the Bill to contain provisions that stand some chance of bringing about that change. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Wilkins Baroness Wilkins Labour 5:30 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I apologise for the fact that I have not spoken previously on this Bill, but, with the leave of the House, I support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Low.

We were debating the Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bill in this House last Friday which makes clear that access to information is fundamental to empowering disabled people to live independently. I should emphasise one particular benefit of these amendments. Clause 1(2)(a) requires local authorities to publicise,

"how to become a member of the principal local authority".

It is a good time to be debating this, because at the other end of the building a Speaker's Conference is considering why relatively few people from disadvantaged groups become elected representatives in the other place, which is a problem for our democracy at all levels.

Leonard Cheshire Disability's evidence to the Speaker's Conference was based on comments from its campaign network and other disabled people. One of the organisation's concerns was that:

"Despite being active in their communities many disabled people do not consider standing for election because they do not have enough information about how to do so, what it costs, the qualifications they need and the responsibilities of elected officials".

I hope we can have a little bit of joined-up thinking and that, to overcome this barrier and for many other reasons, my noble friend will respond positively to these amendments.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I associate myself with these amendments and support them. I should declare an interest as it is the first time that I have spoken in this debate. I follow the footsteps of my noble friend Lord Greaves, and I have clocked up 13, perhaps 14, years in local government. That is nothing like as many years as him. For the next two and a half weeks I will be a member of Berwick-upon-Tweed Borough Council, but as noble Lords know, we are about to be abolished. I should also declare, because I did not in Committee, that I am a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and we are inquiring into openness, accountability and leadership in local government, which reflects some of the issues that come up in this Bill. We are taking evidence at the moment. I am also a vice-president of the Local Government Association, which has an interest in the Bill.

As I said in Committee, I am particularly keen to support these amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Low, because I was encouraged to get into local government by a partially sighted lady, and therefore I understand the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins. That was a long way back in the 1970s, and my friend had very poor sight; she taught me a lot about how partially sighted people cope with the written word, the typeface that is needed and the various equipment available to help people in that position. Indeed, she got herself elected to the local authority in Southampton where I was a member with her and she did a lot, not only to promote the local authority, but to encourage others, not just with sight disabilities but other disabilities, to become involved with the council.

One thing that was particularly important in our work on the authority in Southampton was to educate officers about the issues of print and how disabled people could access information on the local authority. That is very important. We were trying to do things in the 1970s and here we are in 2009. I hope that the Minister can provide encouragement in this respect and I wholly support the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Shadow Minister (Community Cohesion), Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I supported the noble Lord, Lord Low, when he moved similar amendments in Grand Committee, and I still support the sentiment which lies behind them. In response to the noble Lord at Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, rightly pointed out that there is an existing duty in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, so passing another law saying the same thing does not get us very far. The relevant sections of the Disability Discrimination Act are Section 2 on "Discrimination by public authorities", which have a duty not to discriminate, and Section 3 on "Duties of public authorities", especially their duty in new paragraph (c) to,

"promote equality of opportunity between disabled persons and other persons", and their duty in new paragraph (f) to,

"encourage participation by disabled persons in public life".

However, the problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, pointed out in his contribution to the debate on the Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bill in your Lordships' House last Friday, is that:

"Making services and information accessible is a legal requirement under the DDA. Yet, the public sector still too often fails to meet these obligations".—[Hansard, 13/3/09; col. 1398.]

I have seen a snapshot survey published by the RNIB which suggests that very few councils are in a position to offer full services to those with disabilities. At Grand Committee, the Minister appeared to wash his hands of responsibility, by saying that:

"We have to trust local authorities and their track record".—[Official Report, 19/1/09; col. GC 91.]

In terms of the bigger picture of this Bill, that is quite some movement on the Government's position. On the one hand the Government have put together this enormously overdetailed Bill, setting out what local authorities must and must not do, while on the other hand they are saying, in effect, "Once we have put this great burden on you, you must get on with it and it's none of our business any more".

The Government created the Disability Discrimination Act. What are they doing to make sure it is implemented? Would this not be a good time to concentrate on working out how to help local authorities implement existing duties, rather than creating a Bill full of new duties?

Photo of Lord Patel of Bradford Lord Patel of Bradford Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, before I address this group of amendments, I put on record the recognition for the amount of work that the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, have done over the years in support of fighting—rightly—for the rights of people with a range of disabilities. Just looking through their past record, I can see that it is a tribute to the work they have done that they have achieved so much.

Amendments 4, 8 and 26 deal with the issue of accessibility for people with disabilities to information disseminated under the duty to promote democracy. Amendments 4 and 8 seek to ensure that information disseminated to local people by councils in discharging their duty to promote democracy is available in formats accessible to disabled people. Amendment 26 adds an additional clause to the Bill, which would require local authorities to publish an annual report listing any information that they have disseminated under Clause 1 which they did not make available in formats accessible to people with disabilities.

I reassure noble Lords that making information accessible to traditionally underrepresented or hard-to-reach groups is a fundamental principle of the duty to promote democracy; I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low, for recognising and supporting that duty. We intend that this will be clearly set out in both statutory and best-practice guidance. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, aim to achieve a wider goal than that offered by these amendments, and would like to ensure that local authorities and other public service providers supply all information in a way that is accessible to people with disabilities. I greatly support the wider principle and the spirit behind the amendments. However, I do not believe these amendments, if accepted, would do much to further this aim as they are legally unnecessary. Let me explain. The Bill has been drafted in the light of other legislation. We will expect councils to promote democracy while also complying with other existing legislation. The Disability Discrimination Act requires councils to make reasonable adjustments so that disabled people can access information.

Additionally the current disability equality duty requires, among other things, public authorities to have due regard to the need to take steps to take account of people's disabilities and encourage them in public life when fulfilling their functions. Councils will be expected to operate under the planned equality duty which will replace the DDA and other equality duties. It will broaden and strengthen the current requirement on public authorities and will require public authorities to consider how they can meet different needs. The Office for Disability Issues is working closely with the Government Equalities Office to ensure that protection from disability discrimination is properly reflected in the new equality Bill.

In the light of this, it would not be legally or practically desirable to accept these amendments and build into this legislation a requirement that is in effect broadly covered by the Disability Discrimination Act, where it is reasonable for the authority to make such adjustments. In fact, it may undermine the general equalities duties, as well as other legislation that does not have specific disabilities access requirements built in, but which is fully intended to operate in the context of the general equalities duties on public authorities.

The equality Bill, which we hope will shortly be joining us in this legislative Session, will be accompanied by statutory codes of practice produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is keen to stress that information should be accessible to all people. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will be taking forward work to publicise and champion the new duty, which of course will be very high on its as well as the Government's agenda.

Amendment 26 is particularly concerned with monitoring the accessibility for disabled people of information disseminated by local authorities when promoting democracy. This amendment will require local authorities to produce annual reports on the information which has been made public or available under Clause 1, but which was not made available in formats accessible to disabled people. I understand that the noble Lord sees this as a discipline on local authorities, but we feel that the effect would be to impose on local authorities an unnecessary bureaucratic process and therefore an additional burden without necessarily making more information available to people with disabilities in accessible formats.

I know that monitoring is of particular interest to the noble Lord, Lord Low, and I would like to outline the various monitoring efforts that the Government are already making in regard to this issue and, I hope, address some of the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. For example, as part of the comprehensive assessment, the inspectorates of local services will look at how well local priorities express community needs and aspirations. The inspectorate has made clear in its framework document for comprehensive area assessment that understanding the needs and aspirations of communities should always include those whose circumstances make them vulnerable and those who are hardest to reach or hear. Inspectorates have also indicated that they may need to better understand the extent to which local partners are sensitive to the particular communication or other needs of minority or marginalised groups.

There is also recourse, through judicial review instigated by an individual or the Equality and Human Rights Commission, against those public authorities that failed to give regard to the disability equality duty. Similarly, if a listed public authority fails to publish a disability equality scheme, or comply with another requirement of specific public sector duties, the commission could issue a compliance notice against them and subsequently enforcement actions would follow were those specific duties not complied with.

As I have said, I of course support the spirit of these amendments. As the noble Lord has shown, in terms of the research that he has commissioned, we have clearly seen that some public authorities are still struggling to meet their responsibilities under this existing legislation. However, I believe that the situation is improving in some areas. Recent reports suggest that the disability equality duty is being used to make improvements for disabled people, and stakeholder groups with which the Office for Disability Issues works closely suggest that the duty has been used in a positive way to make changes. In fact, research published in December examining the experience of public authorities in implementing the disability equality duty, found that greater priority was being given to disability equality issues within public sector bodies, and there were examples of mainstreaming disability equality and policy-making. However, clearly there are still challenges to achieve our commitment of equality for people with disabilities by 2025, which is why the Office for Disability Issues will be following up with a toolkit called Producing Better Information for Disabled People, which will be published in April and specifically aimed at local authorities.

Although I am unable to accept the noble Lord's amendments, there are a number of additional actions that I will commit to take forward, which may help to support the principles behind the amendments and will give an extra push to efforts already being made in this area, I hope. First, I intend to write to Trevor Phillips in his capacity as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, passing on the concerns outlined by noble Lords in relation to accessibility, and asking the commission in its monitoring role to look at ways in which local authorities' provision of information to people with disabilities can be monitored more closely and in a way that achieves tangible change.

Secondly, we will clearly set out reminders about the requirements on local authorities under equality legislation in both the statutory and best-practice guidance accompanying the duty. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low, for generously accepting my offer made in Committee for him to be involved in the drafting of the guidance. We will of course be involving the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Office for Disability Issues and the Government Equalities Office in producing the guidance, as we are keen that it covers these points clearly and strongly.

Thirdly, I will discuss with colleagues in government the importance of the issues raised by these amendments to see whether there are other avenues available to us in forwarding this agenda. I will write to my right honourable friend Harriet Harman, in her capacity as Minister for Women and Equality, informing her of these debates and asking for her views on the topics raised.

Finally, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, for tabling the amendments a second time, and allowing us the opportunity to further raise the profile of these important issues. I hope that I have gone some way to reassure them by my reply and that they understand why I must resist the amendments. There is little advantage in merely having provisions in this Bill that are so similar to what is already required under the Disability Discrimination Act, which requires authorities to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people. Instead, we should promote the issues raised by these amendments and ensure that all is done to improve in real terms the way the public authorities discharge their current and future duties. With this, I hope that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench 5:45 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, the Minister has gone a long way to reassure us, and has shown by his reply that he is very seized of the need to take more action to address the issues which we have raised in this debate. I am very grateful to all noble Lords who spoke in support of the amendment and to the Minister for his extremely comprehensive reply. His response is very helpful and shows that he certainly supports the principle of the amendments if not the actual amendments themselves.

The Minister is right to suggest that the ultimate goal is for blind and partially sighted people and others who have difficulty reading print to have the same access to information as everyone else. He is also right to say that there is the option for judicial review, though we had obviously hoped to find a more constructive approach than suing people. So I am grateful that he has made a number of concrete suggestions for tackling the problem across government. I hope that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will pick up his request and run with it and I look forward to working with him and his officials on the guidance.

For the rest, I will read the Minister's remarks in detail tomorrow and follow up appropriately. I understand the point and would not wish to undermine other legislation which does not contain a specific duty such as we are asking for, by including one in this legislation. However, I am sure that he realises that we will return to the wider issue in the context of the equality Bill when it comes to this House in due course. Meanwhile, I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

Amendments 5 and 6

Moved by Baroness Andrews

5: Clause 1, page 2, line 15, after "arrangements"" insert ", in relation to any authority,"

6: Clause 1, page 2, line 16, at end insert "by the authority (including the making of decisions by the authority in partnership or conjunction with any other person)"

Amendments 5 and 6 agreed.

Clause 2 : Democratic arrangements of connected authorities

Amendments 7 and 8 not moved.

Clause 2: Democratic arrangements of connected authorities

Amendment 9

Moved by Lord Greaves

9: Clause 2, page 2, line 37, leave out "in the principal local authority's area" and insert "which—

(i) is in the area of the principal local authority, or

(ii) is attended by a significant number of students who live in the area of the principal local authority"

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall move Amendment 9, which is in the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, and speak to Amendment 9A, which is in my name. I apologise for the fact that Amendment 9A was tabled only today. That was due to some confusion between our Whips' Office and the Public Bill Office.

The purpose of these amendments is to return to an issue that we discussed at some length in Grand Committee, one of the issues to which the Government seem not to have responded and that we believe is important enough to press them on now. Amendment 9 says that the democratic arrangements for people to be governors of schools should apply not just to the schools in the principal local authority's area but also to schools that are,

"attended by a significant number of students who live in the area of the principal local authority".

Amendment 9A applies the same wording to hospitals and similar facilities provided by the health service. The arrangements should apply not just to facilities that are in the area of the principal local authority but also to those which are,

"attended by a significant number of patients who live in the area of the principal local authority".

I do not particularly want to debate the word "significant" today. I believe that that can be left to the common sense of the principal local authority concerned.

There are many cases where the catchment area for most of the school's pupils does not coincide with the area of a local authority. People might travel long distances to schools in some areas in London but in most places this problem, in relation to this part of the Bill, is a matter of a school which is on one side of a boundary. Located near a boundary and clearly on one side of that boundary, it is in one local authority area but will be attended by lots of students from the other local authority. I explained this in some detail in Committee when I gave two examples from just outside the city of Bradford—a part of the world which I think the noble Lord, Lord Patel, knows fairly well, as do I. One school serves people in the Oakenshaw area and the other people in the villages around Keighley, with one school in Kirklees and the other in north Yorkshire. Significant numbers of pupils attend those schools. It is ridiculous that someone turning up at the city hall in Bradford or looking on the website in search of how to become a governor at one of the schools should be told that, as the school is not in Bradford, they do not include that information. Surely the question ought to be whether the information that is available to people is useful in answering the questions they are likely to ask and the inquires they are likely to make, not whether the school is on one side of the border or the other and therefore ruled out bureaucratically because it is on the wrong side. If a lot of parents and children live in Bradford and go to school just outside Bradford, or any other situation throughout the country, then surely they ought to be helped by this information.

The same applies particularly to primary care trusts and hospital trusts and boards. In many parts of the country there are traditional arrangements where people in one part of a district or county go to a hospital in another district or county and they are in different primary care trust areas. If they are in the same area and county, I suppose that the county might provide that information anyway. The example I gave concerns people in the eastern parts of Pendle, particularly the parts which before 1974 were in the West Riding of Yorkshire, who traditionally go to Airedale Hospital, which the Minister revealed he also had close contacts with and knowledge of. In that situation, most people in Barnoldswick and Earby go to Airedale. So if they go to their local Pendle council shop in Barnoldswick to get this information, they will be told, "No, we cannot provide this information. It is not available here. You'll have to go and ask someone in Bradford or Keighley". That is nonsense. It is not a sensible way to do it.

I cannot understand why the Government are resisting these amendments. They are common sense and easy to operate. They rely on local knowledge about what is sensible and what is not sensible. They really ought to go in. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will remember, we had a canter over this course in Committee. I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, in the Chamber. He was very helpful to me in Committee, and I am sure that he will be equally helpful to me again today once I catch his ear. He is being spoken to, and spoken about. They do quite a lot of that in Essex.

As the noble Lord will remember, in Grand Committee I mentioned living in Loughton, which makes me an Essex man. I was very pleased to introduce to the proceedings a piece of my knowledge—that Epping Forest College, in Debden, is the recipient of a considerable sum which has lately been spent on it to vastly improve its facilities. It intrigues and delights me every time I travel from Loughton and into Debden to see the stream of youngsters coming to the college. They come from the Debden Central Line station, a 10 to 15-minute walk, and they are always impeccably dressed and well behaved. I would imagine that they appreciate the education they are receiving in that facility.

I raise that point because I am trying to understand the significance of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on this issue. I imagine that he knows where he is coming from; he wants people who are interested in the democracy of the institution, whether it is this place or any other that he mentioned from his wide knowledge, and have the ability to participate in it.

I am intrigued to know about a place such as the Epping Forest College in Debden. When I said that the majority of its pupils must come from somewhere else, the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, told me, sotto voce, that 70 or 80 per cent of its pupils do not live in the area. As Debden, which is on the Central Line, is just into Essex, the students come from further afield, so a dozen London boroughs must provide students and take advantage of the facility. I do not have a clue about the financial arrangements and so on, but if we are all in favour of young people taking advantage of the quality of the courses at that college, and if they are convenient, we say good luck to them. We, the politicians, have sort out the nitty gritty of that process.

I can understand, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has told me, that it is a frustration when one believes that one is entitled to participate in the democracy of an institution to find that, although it is local, it is not within a local catchment area. So I would be grateful to the Minister, when she replies as effectively as she always does, if she could explain the significance of this in a place like the Epping Forest College, where 80 per cent of pupils do not live in the catchment area. The 20 per cent do have rights, but the rights for the other 80 per cent are so scattered that they are very difficult to marshal. I rest my case.

Photo of Lord Patel of Bradford Lord Patel of Bradford Government Whip, Government Whip 6:00 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, that my noble friend is not answering the question. Unfortunately, he will have to put up with me, and I hope I can be as persuasive as she absolutely would have been. I thank him for his input on this issue.

Amendments 9 and 9A seek to extend the scope of the duty on local authorities beyond their geographical boundaries. They seek to provide local people with information about the democratic arrangements of hospitals, clinics and schools that are not based in their area but that a significant number of local people attend or use. They seek to do this by amending the descriptions of maintained schools, Clause 2(2)(d), and NHS and foundation trusts, Clause 2(2)(f), within the list of connected authorities, to add those that are attended by a significant number of students or patients living in the area, even where this service is not in the home authority.

While I appreciate the intentions of noble Lords here, and as we discussed in great detail in Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, pointed out, we do not believe that these amendments are necessary. Nor do we believe that these are reasonable or practical requirements to place on local authorities. These duties will require all principal local authorities to promote understanding of the democratic arrangements of the local authority and connected authorities, among other things, to people who live, work or study in their area. Let us remind ourselves that this duty is about promoting understanding of the democratic arrangements for public bodies set up either to be influenced by citizens, directly or indirectly, or run by lay citizen representatives. It is not designed to cover all conceivable information about public services in general.

Inevitably there is a fine balance in addressing the needs of the community and minimising the burden on local authorities. In doing so, we are also very mindful not to increase duplication of information where this is not necessary. We ask all local authorities to promote democratic understanding in their areas, and we do not only mean providing information by newsletters, leaflets and on websites, although this is important.

It would be the responsibility of the local authority in which the hospital or school is based to promote understanding of its democratic processes to all of its local people. This is additional to the information that these services provide directly to their students, patients and other users. This amendment would lead to unnecessary duplication that would affect the local authorities which are under the duty, the local people who are the target of the duty, and the connected authorities mentioned here: schools, NHS trusts and foundation trusts. I will explain further.

First, there would be a duplication of effort between councils in gathering this information, as they would each be collecting information on bodies in both their own and their neighbouring areas. As such, there would be a significant overlap in the scope of the duty on local authorities.

Secondly, a larger volume of information would be aimed at individuals: they would receive information about services both in the local authority in which they live and about facilities in neighbouring areas. Local people could be bombarded with information about all the NHS trusts in all the local authorities surrounding their home area. From the citizens' perspective, many of these facilities will not be relevant to them and this could lead to the information being confusing and unclear. This would also, of course, add to the burden on local authorities.

Lastly, the amendments would lead to duplications in requests for information, as these bodies would receive requests not only from the local authorities in which they live, but from several local authorities whose residents use those facilities. Surely it is more efficient to divide the burden of collecting and disseminating information on these bodies between the different local authorities, in the way the Bill suggests, rather than require them to overlap, as the noble Lord's amendments suggest. The statutory guidance would suggest methods of disseminating this information, once the effort of gathering and collating it had been done, that could maximise the number of people who would benefit from it, such as by providing links to websites, placing leaflets in strategic locations, and using posters in the area. In this way, councils can ensure that those who see the information are those for whom it is relevant and important.

As noble Lords know, it is usual that requirements on local authorities relate to their geographical area. This provides a clear limit to expectations, and fits with the funding regime. There is nothing to stop local authorities working together if it is more practical to do so. But that is a decision for the local authorities involved. As noble Lords know, we are providing new money to cover this new duty, but this is based on working with local people, according to our definition and within the local authority boundary.

We are also concerned about using a phrase such as "significant number", and although the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has said that some common sense would have to be applied, this would not provide sufficient clarity as to when a local authority must provide information, and when not. "What constitutes a significant number?" would be the question that would be continually asked. There is nothing to stop a local authority providing this additional information if it chooses to do so. We just do not believe it is right to require it.

I hope I have reassured the noble Lord that the best way to achieve what we both want to see happen, which is that information reaches those people who have a genuine connection with and are affected by these services, is to focus on targeting information by suggesting intelligent methods to do this in guidance, rather than creating overlaps by broadening the scope of the information that councils must gather. In this way, the information is sure to reach the right people, and councils' burdens are minimised.

We expect local authorities to take a sensible approach; to consider how to imaginatively promote democratic understanding, as we have set out in these duties, in a way that is relevant to their local communities. We will work with the LGA to ensure that we cover these points in guidance. I remind noble Lords that the aim of the duty to promote understanding of connected authorities, which will be made clear in the guidance, is to give local people an overall picture of local democracy in their area. We emphasise that it is open to local authorities to promote connected authorities that are not on the list, where they are relevant to local people. As such, we consider both amendments to be unnecessary, and I ask the noble Lord to withdraw.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I am very tempted to call a vote after that. With great respect to the Minister, he did not answer the local questions I asked him and about which I thought he would have local knowledge. Why will parents of children in Oakenshaw not receive from their own council in Bradford information about their local school, and about how to become governors of the school that their children attend, and that almost all children in Oakenshaw attend? That is the basic question. When the Minister suggests that what is required is an efficient system, who is the efficiency on behalf of? Is it the internal efficiency of the organisation of the local authority, or is it the efficiency of the system that provides the information required by people in Oakenshaw or wherever it happens to be? With great respect to Ministers generally, it seems to me that there are times when they should read the briefings they are given, apply some common sense to them and say, "No, this is wrong". The answer that the Minister has just read out is ridiculous. I am sorry to say that but I believe that it is.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, mentioned London. I accept that London is a different case but one or two of the other big conurbations may also be different cases, particularly Greater Manchester. The place that everyone thinks of as Manchester is divided into different councils, in the same way that London is, although it has nothing like as many as London. However, everyone thinks of Trafford, Salford and Manchester as just Manchester, unless they happen to live there and know differently. Therefore, I agree that there are problems.

Perhaps I may go through one or two things that the Minister said. He said that our proposal is not necessarily reasonable or practical. I am not in favour of doing anything that is not necessarily reasonable or practical. He also said that not "all conceivable information" can be given. I am not suggesting that it should be all conceivable information; I am suggesting that the information given should be the sensible information that most people who live in a particular place require. He said that we do not want duplication where it is not necessary. I agree entirely with the Minister. However, the whole purpose of the amendments is to assert that in some cases it will be necessary to make councils do what the Government want them to do under Chapter 1 of the Bill—that is, to provide sensible information. He suggested that councils should have to promote the information to all their own local people. However, boundaries do not respect things such as a council's "own local people"; they cross community boundaries and the catchment areas of hospitals and schools. It does not seem right to promote the information to your own local people but not to other people who use your facilities.

The Minister said that the information should relate to a geographical area. I agree. Later in the Bill, when we talk about the results of the sub-national review and multi-area agreements and even economic prosperity boards, the Government will tell us that what matters is not the precise boundaries of a particular local authority but the economic geography of the area—that is what people keep calling it—the area which is economically and geographically sensible because it is a unit. It may be the city region or in other areas it may be something different. The Government would no doubt argue that Workington, Whitehaven and perhaps Barrow in West Cumbria are part and parcel of the same economic geographical area, and I would agree. They use one argument there, yet here they say that geographical areas have to be the boundaries of local authorities. However, in many areas those boundaries are quite arbitrary: some are historically arbitrary and some are arbitrary in modern terms, but they are arbitrary.

Finally, the Minister used the words "genuine connection". There is nothing more genuine in terms of a connection than the hospital that you always go to, whether for an appointment or when the ambulance turns up. When the ambulance men ask, "Where do you want to go?", you reply, "That hospital", because that is where everyone in the area goes. There is nothing more genuine than the school that all the children in a village or suburb attend. With regard to the concept of connected authorities in the Bill, I can only refer to the authority of which I am a member. When Airedale General Hospital wanted to put in a bid to become a foundation trust—I do not know how far that bid has got or how far it is going—it came to Pendle council over the border in Lancashire and said, "We recognise that traditionally a third of the people in Pendle come to us rather than go to Burnley. We recognise that the East Lancashire Primary Care Trust has had a contract with Airedale for many years in order to pay for these patients. We would like Pendle to have representation on the primary care trust board". There cannot be anything more "connected" than that in the Government's concept of the word. There will be direct connectivity with representation from one authority over the border in a hospital in a different authority.

The Government say that they cannot accept most of the amendments that we put forward. They say that they understand them and, although they may not agree, they recognise that there is a sensible case to be made. However, in this case, I think that the Government are being resistant and obdurate, and I do not understand why. To me, it is common sense that this option should be written into the Bill. As I said, I am extremely tempted to test the opinion of the House. However, I shall not do so because this Bill has a lot of track to go down yet. It has to go to the House of Commons, and the Government have a lot of time to continue to think about this matter and to put something sensible into the Bill. I hope that they will do that as the Bill progresses through its further stages in this House and the House of Commons. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 9 withdrawn.

Amendments 9A and 10 not moved.

Amendments 11 and 12

Moved by Baroness Andrews

11: Clause 2, page 3, line 6, at end insert—

"(aa) a parish meeting;"

12: Clause 2, page 3, line 36, at end insert—

"(aa) a community meeting;"

Amendments 11 and 12 agreed.

Amendment 13 not moved.

Clause 3: Monitoring boards, courts boards and youth offending teams

Amendment 14 not moved.

Amendment 15

Moved by Lord Tope

15: Clause 3, leave out Clause 3

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 6:15 pm, 17th March 2009

I shall speak also to Amendments 17 to 20, 24 and 25. We return to an issue that was subject to some considerable debate in Committee. Amendment 15 proposes to leave out Clause 3 relating to monitoring boards, courts boards and youth offending teams, and Amendment 17 would leave out Clause 4 relating to lay justices. The other amendments are consequential on those two principal amendments.

This will probably be one of those areas where we simply disagree with the Government but perhaps I may start with where we do agree. We certainly agree that a better understanding among local people—indeed, the public in general—of the functions of all those bodies is desirable. It is certainly desirable that people understand better how they can become involved in, or even in some cases become a member of, those bodies. All that is desirable. We recognise that the membership of the magistracy, in particular, needs to be very much more diverse than is currently the case. Therefore, all that is common ground between us. We certainly recognise that any assistance that local authorities can give in bringing about that greater understanding and involvement—enabling people to understand what is involved if, for example, they seek to become a magistrate—will be beneficial. All that is desirable and no one would think otherwise.

However, there is a huge difference between local authorities assisting voluntarily with the various bodies in bringing that about and the Government placing a statutory duty on them to do so. That is simply a step too far. For instance, it is not, and should not be, the statutory responsibility of a local authority to encourage people to know more about becoming, and then to become, magistrates, desirable though that may be. It is good if a local council, in discussion with its local magistrates or, indeed, with the Magistrates' Association wishes voluntarily to put something on its website or to make available leaflets that explain those roles. That is desirable. I hesitate to say it, but this could even be suggested in the guidance. However, to make it a statutory duty of the local authority is a step too far. Making it a statutory duty is also inconsistent with what the Minister has assured us throughout is intended to be a light-touch approach. The roles of a local authority and the local magistrates are not close enough, in this sense, to be consistent with a light touch.

When we discussed Clause 4 in Committee, several concerns were raised. I wondered, without making too much of an issue, whether there was a potential difficulty between the relationship of a local authority, in its use of a magistrates' court, and this duty. That could happen, although I do not want to exaggerate. The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, several times asked what a local authority would do better than those bodies that are doing it now. She never really received an answer. It is those bodies' job and responsibility, which most of them are carrying out, to better inform the public and seek a wider and more diverse membership. How will a local authority with a statutory duty to do that do it better than it is being done now?

The Minister's only reply was that this will be in the wider context of civic engagement and that is desirable. Somebody looking at a council website, wondering what is involved in becoming a councillor, will not suddenly say that they would much rather be on a prison monitoring board than become a councillor. It is unlikely that anyone who wishes to be involved with an independent monitoring board for a prison or a visiting committee, or who wants to become a magistrate, will look at the local authority website in the first instance. They are more likely to look at the appropriate website for that authority. It is just inappropriate and wrong to make it a statutory duty.

I am sorry to see that the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, is not in his place. In Committee, he expressed qualified support for my view. He said that if we are talking, as we are, about lay justices, why is there no similar duty for tribunals? I am not for one moment arguing that there should be. Indeed, for the same reasons, there should not be, but it seems to be an inconsistency and the Minister agreed that she would think about that inconsistency. I would like to believe that her thoughts have led her to believe that having the statutory duty for lay justices is inappropriate and that we are not now, as a result, going to add tribunals to the list. That is a point for consideration. Clauses 3 and 4 are simply wrong. It is wrong to place a statutory duty on local authorities in this respect and it is inconsistent with the proclaimed light touch. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Hanningfield Lord Hanningfield Shadow Minister, Transport

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Warsi and I have added our names to Amendments 15 and 17. I declare my interest as leader of Essex County Council, past vice-chairman of the Local Government Association, chairman of the Essex Management Board and numerous other interests associated with my leadership of Essex County Council.

If the Government had had the sense to accept Amendment 3, they might have got quite a bit of what they wanted but still kept some of the duties that they required. I am afraid that now we really must support Amendments 15 and 17 because, without going back to the debate that we had in Committee, we believe that the amount of detail and regulation that the Government plan to put behind these duties is—based on my long experience in local government—frankly absurd. I hope that the Government can think again on this. We all want to promote local government, but the regulation is so detailed that I request that the Government think again. That is all that I have to say; we have said it many times before. I ask the noble Baroness to persuade her colleagues to think again on this.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Tope, began his speech, I thought that I had persuaded him. He began by saying that he wanted more understanding on the functions in this clause and how people become involved, that the magistracy needs to be more diverse and that assistance from local authorities was desirable. Then he backed off from the notion that we should make sure that this happens by including a duty that is consistent with the rest of the Bill. I will try again to explain why it is so important that these functions are also captured by the duty.

I will state briefly what the clauses do and why. We had a long but—largely due to me—rather confused debate on this in Committee. I will make sure that this is now on the record. Very briefly, the information to be provided, which is captured in Clause 3, will include information about how the bodies function; what they do; how a person can be a member of, or take part in, these bodies; and what is involved in doing so. The duty does not require councils to explain the decision-making arrangements of the bodies.

The difference between these bodies and those listed in Clause 2 is that the bodies listed in Clause 2 have broad responsibilities and offer a wider range of formal and informal opportunities for ordinary members or sections of the public to be involved in their decision-making. The bodies listed in Clause 3 are different. Their functions relate to the administration of justice services, so it is not appropriate or necessary for their decision-making arrangements, other than their civic functions, to be included. In carrying out their functions, they simply seek to recruit ordinary citizens to serve on them and to fill the important lay judicial and inspectoral roles from the local community. These roles include monitoring the day-to-day life in local prisons or removal centres, ensuring that proper standards of care and decency are maintained as part of an independent monitoring board or making recommendations to improve the administrative services provided by the court as part of the court board.

These are important functions within the community. There has long been concern that the pool of people who take part is not broad or diverse enough. There is a genuine appetite among the organisations, and a real need, to ensure that a more diverse range of people put themselves forward. For example, the recruitment of new members is critical to independent monitoring boards, not least because many IMBs are currently understrength. The difficulties of recruiting new members, especially in low population areas, where many of our prisons are located, and of ensuring that membership reflects a broad range of ages and backgrounds are a constant challenge for IMBs. That is one good argument for why this should be a duty.

The aim, therefore, is to spread awareness of the work of the organisations among groups that are underrepresented and people who may be unaware that such opportunities are available. As I said, the people who do this work are not as representative of their populations as they might be. Only one-third of court board members are women, according to figures from June 2008. Nationally, 80 per cent of magistrates are over 50 and the average age is 57. Although the proportion of IMB members from black and ethnic minority communities is around 7 per cent, the proportion of members of these communities on individual boards hardly mirrors the composition of the local population.

The bodies named in Clauses 3 and 4—lay justices, IMBs, court boards and youth offending teams—are committed to the promotion of their lay roles. Their ambition is to attract a wide and diverse range of people to take up those roles. They or their representatives have all welcomed the opportunity offered by inclusion in this clause to further promote their lay roles, in addition to the work that they already do to attract a wider and more diverse range of people to take them up.

In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, was concerned that the duty might have a perverse consequence, where the fact that the council was committed to promoting greater diversity or understanding of the bodies' roles would demotivate the bodies themselves from doing so. I hope that I can address the question raised by the noble Lord. It is understood by the bodies concerned that we intend to build on what they do, amplify and enhance it and spread the word further, to ensure that the roles are promoted even more widely and to take a joined-up approach across different public bodies to make it more likely that citizens will be able to access information and get involved.

We are not in any sense imposing those requirements on the public bodies in question. We are not saying that councils are superior to those bodies. We are not saying that they will be able to come up with amazing feats to inspire people that the bodies are less capable of doing themselves. We are saying that giving councils that role means that there will be an additional opportunity, an additional focus, with greater attention generated and a boost given to the efforts that the bodies themselves are already making. There is an argument for additional effort in this area and for saying that that will be achieved only by imposing a duty. That will help to increase publicity about roles.

The council can provide a single point of contact for and will reach out to those who are not already aware of a specific role but who may be helpful to the organisations concerned and interested in finding out what is on offer. I am concerned that, if responsibility remains solely with the bodies concerned and that help is not provided, we will be stuck in the current situation where, in many cases, only people who already know about the bodies or have a professional interest can approach them for information. We want it to be made clearer to the public what those bodies do and how to take up opportunities. We think that requiring local authorities to promote information about their important range of local roles means that they can be promoted more effectively and coherently.

Clause 4 deals essentially with lay justices, commonly known as magistrates. The same arguments apply. The noble Lord asked me about the question raised by my noble friend Lord Borrie. We thought about that. He mentioned the fact that the tribunals were not mentioned in Clause 3. We have reviewed that since Committee. We have confirmed that, as they operate at national level, they do not meet our criteria for inclusion. The Tribunals Service at the Ministry of Justice confirms that it does not consider tribunals to be appropriate to be included in the duty. I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising the point and for allowing me to explain why it is not included.

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 6:30 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. Let me start by making it clear that I was certainly not proposing that tribunals should be included—quite the opposite. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, was not here, I thought that I could at least give the Minister the opportunity to clarify that point, which arose in Committee.

We agree with almost everything that the Minister said in her reply, but it still did not address the key point. Of course it is desirable that there should be greater knowledge and understanding of the functions of all those bodies. Of course anything and everything should be done to encourage a wider and more diverse membership, although I had a little concern when the Minister appeared to be straying into suggesting that local authorities might help with recruitment. I think that she was probably talking about Clause 3, but she mentioned Clause 4, which concerns lay justices. I think that we are all agreed that local authorities must stop short of trying to recruit magistrates. That would be a dangerous path down which to go.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I want to correct that impression, if I have given it. The noble Lord is quite right; I would not want to suggest that. That was loose language.

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful for that. We all agree that that is not a path down which local authorities should go. In moving the amendment, I said that I accept and believe that anything that a local authority can properly do in association with these bodies, especially local magistrates, to promote understanding, to encourage people to take a greater part and to bring about greater diversity is clearly desirable. Indeed, I think that I went as far as to say that, despite my misgivings about guidance, reference to it as a desirable action could be included in guidance. Voluntary assistance and even active engagement by local authorities are very different from placing a statutory duty on those authorities. If there needs to be a statutory duty, it should rest with the appropriate bodies, not with the local authority. That is the key difference between us and the Government and a point on which we will just have to continue to disagree. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 15 withdrawn.

Clause 4: Lay justices

Amendments 16 and 17 not moved.

Clause 5: Provision of information

Amendments 18 to 20 not moved.

Amendment 21

Moved by Lord Patel of Bradford

21: Clause 5, page 5, line 22, at end insert—

"(za) the county council must, at least once a year, request any authority, body or other person in relation to which the district council is also under a duty under section 2, 3 or 4 for the information that the district council needs in order to discharge the duty in that section,"

Photo of Lord Patel of Bradford Lord Patel of Bradford Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I shall speak to government Amendments 21 to 23. First, I welcome the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, on this set of amendments, which are intended to improve the arrangements set out in Clause 5. They explain how counties and districts can work together in county areas to provide information to the public on how they can participate in or influence local decision-making by bodies listed in Clauses 2, 3 or 4. We listened to noble Lords' comments that it was not necessarily clear to councils that the responsibility for requesting and collecting information from the connected authorities and those bodies listed in Clauses 3 and 4 falls to counties in two-tier areas.

Clause 5 currently establishes how the duties will work in two-tier areas and clarifies the responsibilities between counties and districts. The arrangements are that the duty applies to districts as well as counties, which means that if citizens go to districts for the information it will be available there and they will not need to be directed to the county instead. Counties will be required to explain how they work, how district councils work and what they and their councillors do. That will also apply vice versa, with districts having to explain about counties. To avoid duplication, in two-tier areas the county will be taking on the burden of collecting the information from the connected authorities and will be required to pass it on to the districts. Should the county not pass the information on to the district, the district will not be deemed to have failed in its duty. Districts can also request and collect additional local information from bodies that they may think are particularly relevant in their area, if they so wish.

The county responsibility for requesting information from the connected authorities was therefore implicit in our drafting of the Bill, which explicitly required both counties and districts to promote understanding of democracy and required counties to pass on any information that they received to their districts, but did not explicitly say that counties must take on the role of requesting the information from connected authorities. We agree that it would be useful to make that role explicit, so that there is no room for doubt. Counties must be clear that there is an expectation being placed on them, and districts must be clear that this is not an onerous duty requiring them to take on work beyond their capacity. Government Amendment 21 therefore makes explicit the requirement for counties to request information from the connected authorities at least once a year. It states that counties must request the relevant information from their districts, connected authorities and the bodies listed in Clauses 3 and 4 at least once a year. The provisions already require that the county must then pass on that information to its districts.

County councils are clearly best placed to take on this role. They have greater capacity, enabling them to put resources into the role, and as they cover all of the area covered by each of the individual districts it makes sense for them to request the information from the connected authorities, which will in many cases be the same for each of the districts. That will ensure that connected authorities are not burdened with multiple requests for the same information.

We have recognised that role in our allocation of funding for this new burden, which assumes that more work will be carried out by the county than by the district. For that reason, we think it unlikely that many districts will choose to collect information themselves, although they can collect information from other bodies that they may feel are particularly relevant to the local area if they so wish.

I remind noble Lords that districts in two-tier areas are required in the same way as counties to promote understanding of their council, their connected authorities and their roles in Clauses 3 and 4. They are far from being excluded from duties relating to the promotion of democracy and we fully expect them to take as proactive a role as the counties in going out to their local people to ensure that awareness and interest are raised.

Clause 5 simply clarifies the arrangements for the information-gathering required to fulfil one aspect of the duty. All we are doing is making that aspect the responsibility of counties so that the burden on districts in two-tier areas, and the number of requests for information, is minimised.

Most districts would find having to collect and update information from the entire list of connected authorities burdensome, considering their size and capacity. We do not wish to create such a burden. Consequently, the Bill is drafted to recognise that this will be far easier for the counties to take on. Districts will also bear in mind that they will not have been allocated funding to take on this role; therefore, it is unlikely that they will want to carry it out for the entire county. However, as I have said, we recognise that districts may want to collect information from local organisations.

Amendments 22 and 23 are consequential on Amendment 21. Amendment 22 removes the time limit of at least a year that had been attached to the requirement upon counties to pass information on to the district, in Clause 5(6)(a). Its purpose is to avoid repeating the time limit which would also appear in new paragraph (za), should Amendment 21 be accepted. Logically, it makes more sense that the requirement of "at least once a year" is attached to the requirement to request information in paragraph (za).

Amendment 23 is also consequential on Amendment 21. Its purpose is to remove text which would become unnecessary were Amendment 21 accepted. This ensures that paragraph (a) cross-refers to the new paragraph (za) rather than repeating its text clarifying the type of information and bodies referred to. I am sure that that is crystal clear to everybody.

Noble Lords will see, therefore, that we have listened to their concerns about the clarity of different roles in two-tier areas. Consequently, I hope that they will accept our amendment. Once again, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, for supporting these amendments. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Shadow Minister (Community Cohesion), Communities and Local Government

My Lords, the Minister might have been surprised when he saw that my noble friend Lord Hanningfield and I had added our names to the government amendment. I assure noble Lords that we have not been bought off. We still have serious doubts about many aspects of this Bill. However, when the Government have made a concession—and the noble Lord may not like that word, but that is what it is—it is important to recognise that they are taking steps in the right direction.

In Grand Committee, noble Lords rightly raised the question of district councils. I said:

"If the duties in Part 1 are to become law, the Government should recognise the importance of district councils and the key role that they play in promoting democracy".—[Official Report, 26/1/09; col. GC13.]

I went on to express my concerns that we should not, however, encourage the unnecessary duplication of work. The noble Lord took those comments on board. The Government's proposals are not yet perfect but they are an improvement on the original wording of the Bill. However, the wording might, once again, need to be changed at Third Reading.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I, too, welcome these amendments. I welcome the Minister's speech a great deal more than his previous one. I will give him one cheer at least, maybe one and a half out of three cheers for this one—well, perhaps one and three-quarters.

I do not regard these as concessions, except in the technical sense. Government Ministers and their civil servants—the Bill team—listened to the debate in Grand Committee and no doubt went away and discussed it with other people and agreed that the Bill, as it stood, was not perfect. No Bills are perfect when they come to this House, particularly when they start here. I am not going to jump up and down and say "Concession, concession". I will say thank you for going some way towards the case that some of us put forward in Grand Committee. The Government have not gone far enough. However, we can perhaps draw a line under it now.

I have one or two questions. I am still concerned about how the county council will collect information at a very local level unless it is able to involve the district councils. In some places, the county council might have local people with all this information. However, in many places districts will have much better local knowledge to bring it all together and about which organisations ought to be included among the connected authorities that should be on the list of ways in which people can get involved.

The county will know about the schools and education system, and they may know about the social services system but they will not know about many of the local groups and organisations which, nevertheless, ought to be included as connected authorities, because they have a financial relationship with the council, because they have council representation on it or are in a partnership—in one sense of that word— involving the council

I will not go through the list of local organisations in Colne, with which I entertained—or otherwise—the Grand Committee. I remembered about 10 or 11 of them, without thinking very hard. All are genuinely connected organisations because they have links, quite close ones in many cases, with the council. I am a member of quite a few of them and go to their meetings. The district council has this information at its fingertips. If the district council has information anyway, can it be included in the information that the county council is collecting?

The Minister suggested that districts could help in collecting information, where it was a sensible thing to do by co-operation with the county council. Will districts be prevented from doing this because it is not in this legislation or in practice? Again, local authorities, in general, are fairly sensible organisations doing things in a fairly sensible way, given the opportunity. Will a county and a district be able to get together in a district and work out, between themselves, how they will collect this information and which organisation should be collecting it? If so, it does not matter what the legislation says about where the responsibility lies; it is a question of whether there will be a sensible outcome.

If the information handed down by the county to the district is incomplete, what does the district do, before publishing its document regarding how people can get involved? Does the district send it back to the county with a list of organisations that ought to be in it and are not, or can it write them down on a piece of paper and send them to the printers with its document? Can the district add things without any onerous burden? As the Minister said, we do not want onerous burdens. Can the district add things to the document from the county council?

My final question is quite important. Will the information that a citizen gets, if he goes to the district council—the town hall—be identical to the information he gets if he goes to the county council information office just down the road, or perhaps even in the same building if they are really joined up? Will the document the county produces and puts on its website be identical to the one published by the district and put on its website? That seems a fairly crunch issue. They clearly ought to be identical. However, they can only be identical if the district is involved in collecting some of that information and if the county is able to take it from the district.

I welcome the amendment relating to the 12-month period. The Minister undersold it. Originally, the Bill said that the county would only send the information to the district every 12 months. It now says that the county will collect the information every 12 months but will pass it to the district when it gets it. I made that point in Committee and am grateful that it was picked up. However, there are some important questions and I wonder if the Minister can answer them.

Photo of Lord Patel of Bradford Lord Patel of Bradford Government Whip, Government Whip 6:45 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, the noble Lord raises important questions and points of detail. Some elements of this will be about common sense and the counties and districts sitting down and talking this through. Nothing prevents the districts from collecting lots of this information, as I have said, but one of the important points for us is that it is clear who is accountable for collecting the information and how it is done. However, the noble Lord raised issues that are probably worth reflecting on in Hansard, and if there is something on which we can elaborate further I am happy to write to him in more detail.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that. If that information could be given before the deadline for tabling amendments for Third Reading, it would be extremely helpful to all of us.

Amendment 21 agreed.

Amendment 22

Moved by Baroness Andrews

22: Clause 5, page 5, line 23, leave out ", at least once a year,"

Amendment 22 agreed.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Deputy Speaker in the Lords, Deputy spokesperson for Northern Ireland, Home Affairs spokesperson for police matters, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, if Amendment 23 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment 24 by reason of pre-emption.

Amendment 23

Moved by Baroness Andrews

23: Clause 5, page 5, line 24, leave out from second "council" to end of line 27 and insert "under paragraph (za)"

Amendment 23 agreed.

Amendments 25 and 26 not moved.

Amendment 27

Moved by Lord Tope

27: After Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—

"Eligibility for membership: politically restricted posts

In section 2 (politically restricted posts the holders of which are disqualified from membership of the local authority) of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 (c. 42), in subsection (2)—

(a) paragraphs (a) and (b) are repealed, and

(b) in paragraph (c), the words "not falling within paragraph (a) or (b) above the" are repealed."

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendments 28 and 29. Noble Lords will have noticed that these amendments are identical to those moved by my noble friend Lady Hamwee in Committee. On 3 February in Committee, she explained their purpose very fully. Your Lordships will be pleased to know that I am not going to repeat all that. Let me simply say for the record that Amendment 27 would repeal legislation that establishes a salary threshold for politically restricted posts in local authorities. Amendment 28 would repeal current legislation that requires council employees to resign on nomination as candidates in an election to be a councillor to their employing council by substituting a requirement that they resign immediately on election, if they are so fortunate.

Amendment 29 would reduce to three months the period during which most former councillors cannot take up employment with a council after their period of service comes to an end. The current 12-month period would be retained for politically restricted posts and for councillors who have been involved in the appointment of senior council staff. We had a constructive discussion on this in Committee and a wide measure of all-party support, particularly for Amendment 27, on the salary threshold.

We have retabled these amendments to give the Government another opportunity to extend their thinking and to explain what they are doing, or more particularly why they are not taking the opportunity now to meet their commitment. The recommendation originally came from the Councillors Commission, and we have had the Government's White Paper, in which they made a commitment to abolish the salary rule. However, we understand from the Minister that, rather than taking this very obvious opportunity to fulfil the commitment that the Government have already given and which enjoys all-party support, they are deferring it and putting it into a draft Bill for further consideration, even though there is all-party support for it and recognition of the need to do it; so we may or may not see a draft Bill eventually becoming a Bill, and even longer after that becoming an Act of Parliament, if nothing else has intervened in the mean time to prevent that happening.

It is genuinely puzzling to all of us why the Government, having made the commitment with all-party support, and having the obvious opportunity, with the Bill now in Parliament, to fulfil that commitment, are now reluctant to fulfil it and are pushing this off to a draft Bill for unnecessary further consideration as a draft Bill that may never actually become an Act of Parliament because of other means entirely outside our control. We have tabled these amendments again to try to understand why the Government are apparently so reluctant to fulfil the commitment that they gave. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, Amendment 27 would remove the link between the salary level and the designation of a local authority post as politically restricted. We certainly support the policy behind the Widdecombe rules, which preserve the visible political impartiality of senior local authority employees. In Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power, our 2008 White Paper, we acknowledged that, with regard to the link between salary and political restrictions, change to the Widdecombe rules is desirable. We are satisfied that the removal of what can be perceived as a blunt instrument will not undermine the important principle at stake. The remaining categories of officer that will remain subject to political restrictions will, in our judgment, continue to cover the most senior officers. That is broadly why I am sympathetic to the intention behind the amendment.

It is clear that noble Lords feel strongly about the need for reform along the lines proposed in Amendment 27 to make it happen more quickly, and that there is cross-party support for this. I can therefore put the noble Lord out of his misery by telling him that I will take the amendment away and reconsider it. I know that noble Lords will appreciate that, as always with these matters, there are technical drafting points at issue. There would, for example, need to be knock-on amendments to Sections 3 and 3A of the 1989 Act, which refer back to the provisions that would be removed by Amendment 27. I will come back to noble Lords on that point at Third Reading, so the noble Lord can regard that as a real victory.

I am afraid that I cannot give as much satisfaction on Amendments 28 and 29, as they are much more complex. They address the relationship between being a local authority officer and a local authority member. We have talked a lot about how we want to encourage people to stand as councillors and take an active role in representing their community. Indeed, the burden of the suggestions made by the Councillors Commission related to promoting the role of councillors and so on. However, we need to be a little cautious about the amendments. Neither of the proposals in Amendments 28 and 29 was recommended by the commission after its very comprehensive investigation into this topic, and I can give reasons why that might be the case.

Amendment 28 would permit officers who are not subject to political restrictions to remain working for an authority while simultaneously seeking election to it. At present, the legal position is that if such people have political ambitions or a desire to offer their services to the public as a councillor, they are free to seek election to every council in the country besides the one that employs them. However, if they think that the best capacity in which they can serve their own council is as a councillor, they are asked to give up their employment before accepting nomination for election. In effect, one has to choose whether one wants to serve as an elected member or as an employed official.

If an employee has a realistic chance of being elected to the authority for which he or she works, the position is not entirely different from the one that applies to someone who has already been elected. The conflict of interest already starts to apply. The candidate will inevitably, and indeed in some respects quite properly, be looking ahead to the long term and to carrying out the duties of a councillor. From a practical point of view, the period between being elected as a member of a council and having to resign one's employment will necessarily be very short, as Amendment 28 recognises. A person would be unable to serve any notice period. There are therefore big issues such as future income and time in this situation.

Even if an employee has no realistic chance of being elected, there are grounds for objecting to permitting retention of employment by the council while standing for election. The possibility is opened up of candidacies that might be perceived as undermining the relationship between employer and employee. What if voters believed that employees were standing for election against sitting councillors as part of a strategy in pay negotiations? I am afraid that that might undermine confidence in the democratic process.

Amendment 28 would not in fact permit council employees to stand for election to the council by which they are employed; it would remove the statutory prohibition but whether a person was subject to any restrictions would then be a matter of contract and employment law. That opens up the possibility of different provisions applying across the country or indeed within the same authority. It raises the prospect of party political considerations interfering or being perceived to interfere in decisions by existing councillors as to whether a council employee should be permitted to stand for election. So while I applaud the sentiment of seeking to widen the category of person who is able to offer their services as elected members of authorities, to include existing employees of local authorities is fraught with practical problems.

Amendment 29 seeks to allow local authority members to take up paid employment with the local authority they used to be a member of just 12weeks after leaving office. Presently, the period is 12 months. I ask noble Lords to consider very carefully the effect of such a serious reduction in the interval between leaving office and taking up employment. On the most practical level, most posts in local authorities take at least 12 weeks to fill. The effect of Amendment 29 would be that councillors who had lost their seat would be able to put in their application for employment by the council from which they had just been unseated virtually before the ballot papers were counted.

That officers of a local authority are fairly appointed on merit is a fundamental and legitimate expectation that the citizen has of those working on their behalf in their local authority. The 12-month buffer gives citizens and officers confidence that the former local authority member has attained employment through ability and honest competition, and helps him or her to be free of the spectre of having used some undue influence in winning the post.

Simply put, I remain unpersuaded that there is any substantial reason for change, especially change that might damage confidence in the performance of the local authority. I am unaware of any evidence that the existence of the 12-month buffer period is acting as a disincentive for able people to put themselves forward as candidates for election to local authorities, or that reducing it to just three months would have any appreciable effect on increasing the willingness of people to come forward. So I do have a problem with the amendment. However, I hope that is overcome by my response to the first of these amendments, which I am sure the noble Lord will take in very good part.

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 7:00 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister and I certainly take her response in good part. My understanding is that she has accepted the intention behind Amendment 27 but that it needs to be correctly drafted, and that it will come back to us at Third Reading. She is indicating her assent, and in that case I am extremely grateful to her and pleased that that is to happen. I am sure that the revised amendment will receive all-party support and a general welcome in local government.

I listened carefully to her clear comments on Amendments 28 and 29 and I should like to look at them more carefully. I understood and agreed with quite a lot of what she said in response to Amendment 28, but I am less sure about Amendment 29. However, we will consider them further and see what happens at later stages. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 27 withdrawn.

Amendments 28 and 29 not moved.

Clause 10: Electronic petitions

Amendment 30

Moved by Lord Greaves

30: Clause 10, leave out Clause 10

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, this amendment would leave out Clause 10, which refers to electronic petitions. I suppose that I should mark the fact that we have moved away from Chapter 1 about democratic involvement and into Chapter 2, which relates to petitions. It will come as no surprise to the Minister to hear that I would much prefer that the entire chapter on petitions did not exist. It is unnecessary. To produce eight full pages and getting on for 3,000 words of primary legislation telling councils how to deal with petitions is a waste of legislative time and, some would say, an insult to local authorities. I would certainly say that it is not the best way to go about it.

I am less agitated about Clause 10 than I am about the rest of the chapter. No doubt the Minister will remind me that in Grand Committee I said that this was a well drafted clause and showed how the rest of the clauses on petitions should be done if the Government insisted on legislating on petitions. I stand by that because it is brief, clear and leaves local authorities to work out exactly what they are going to do. Nevertheless, it is not necessary. This is not something that councillors cannot do now. If councils want to set up an e-petition facility on their websites, they can do so. I do not know whether any councils are doing it, but I am absolutely certain that the best approach would have been to work out sensible guidance in co-operation with the Local Government Association and send it round to councils. Whenever Ministers such as the noble Baroness go around the country making speeches, they could include this as something that should be done. Articles could be written in magazines and there could be a general acceptance within the local government world, or what people nowadays, in a rather modern way that I do not really approve of, call the local government community. It that were done, I do not doubt that the great majority of councils would have e-petitions up and running within 12 months. In fact, they would get them ready more quickly than as a result of legislation that made it compulsory.

It really is a nonsense to introduce legislation that forces councils to do exactly what the Government want on issues such as this. If the culture in local government was to adopt e-petitions and they were accepted as something that everyone just did, all councils would have them. That is the right approach. One of the reasons why that is a better way is that different councils would set them up in different ways. We would see diversity of provision in e-petition systems around the country. The Government will say that they want everyone to be exactly the same, but the problem is that unless you have diversity of provision, you will never know what best practice is. The best approach is to let people do their own thing and then learn from one another on the basis of best practice.

The Government believe that they know how to do things in detail. The nanny state comes along and says, "This is exactly what you have to do and exactly how you have to do it. If you don't do it our way, you will be breaking the law". That is ludicrous. I therefore have no hesitation at all in moving this amendment to take Clause 10 out of the Bill. That would not prevent councils from setting up e-petitions, and indeed it might even encourage them, but this is the wrong way to go about it. It is a top-down, new Labour, centralised state way and it should not happen. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour

My Lords, I am puzzled by the attitude of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, although I know where he is coming from. I sympathise with his feeling that this is an attempt by centralising government, local or national, to have things done exactly as they feel they should be done. But that is not necessarily so. I believe that the noble Lord has wide experience, so he must have seen petitions drawn up in many ways. By and large, when someone asks someone else to sign a petition, they sum up in two sentences what the petition is about and the petitioner then signs it. No one examines the syntax or logic of the motion because it is the issue that matters. The issue is accepted by the petitioner and he signs it. However, if the petition is capable of misinterpretation, certainly after the event when the result is known, to say that the petition did not mean this or did not mean that would be anti-democratic and not in the interests of pursuing the issue.

I had some experience of petitions during my service on Enfield Council. They invariably argued against an action of the council in the planning field, for instance, or in the education field. I remember the actions of my friend the late John Mackie, the MP for Enfield East, at the time of the introduction of national comprehensive education in the mid-1960s. A tremendous petition was presented to the council and to Parliament in the name of the voters and residents of Enfield. When it was examined it was found that many hundreds of people who had attended the Enfield or Edmonton markets had signed the petition but had no right to do so. The noble Lord's concern is misplaced. There needs to be some guidance and a method whereby petitions can be made clear.

Another petition with which my good friend the late lamented John Mackie was involved concerned a planning issue where big sums of money were at stake. When people sign a petition they are generally driven or motivated by how the issue affects them. That is all very good and correct, but I do not think that we should be too mealy mouthed and say that a petition should be acceptable in whatever form the promoter wishes it to be. There is nothing wrong with the Government giving the appearance of being heavy-handed; if petitions are to have relevance and validity they must be seen to be well drawn up. I am talking not about the contents of the petition but about its style and its manner.

I cannot accept the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, which can be summed up as being against the policing and shaping of petitions in the way proposed by the Government. I believe that the Government's proposals are far better than the present situation.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Shadow Minister (Community Cohesion), Communities and Local Government

My Lords, unfortunately, I do not support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in seeking to leave out Clause 10. We on these Benches are not opposed to an e-petition scheme; on the contrary, we believe that it is likely to assist both the local authority and those making petitions. I seldom compliment the Government on what they do but the introduction of the online petition scheme at Downing Street has been very useful in providing the oxygen of publicity on various causes, such as the Lisbon treaty and a new bank holiday. Members of the House may disagree on whether the petitioners were right or wrong, but if we are looking for an increased engagement between local people and local authorities, Clause 10 may help to facilitate that.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 7:15 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Baroness's intervention. I welcome her support and that of my noble friend, who made some very telling comments. I know that we are pre-empting a larger debate, which will surface as we go through the amendments, on whether we should legislate for petitions at all, and I shall use those arguments as we come to them. I am confused by the noble Lord's opposition now to a clause that he said he was in favour of in Committee. He was relatively full of praise for the clause and congratulated the Government on it. During later discussions he went so far as to say that he did not seek to leave out e-petitions. I was hopeful that we might maintain some consistency and I am surprised by his new-found opposition.

I can only confirm what I said in Grand Committee, which was that e-petitions are an invaluable tool. As the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said, we need to look only at the success of the No. 10 e-petition site and the experience of local authorities such as Bristol and Kingston to see how effective e-petitions can be in communicating community concerns and giving public bodies the opportunity to address them in ways that they could not have dreamt of even five years ago. Therefore, it is only right that our legislation should show that people can make petitions in this way.

The noble Lord seems to think that this is happening, or might happen, in many more places, but so far we are aware of only three local authorities operating e-petitions out of the 388 authorities in England. We want to make more happen and we have chosen this vehicle to do that. We want to achieve both visibility and a systematic way of drawing petitions to the attention of the community, as well as their rights under the Bill to receive acknowledgements and action. We will come on to that in later amendments.

These provisions are essentially about raising standards everywhere. This is an important clause and I am disappointed by the noble Lord's response. I certainly stand by my comments in Grand Committee and wish to see Clause 10 stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, there are degrees of opposition: some things are absolutely crazy and can get me going, such as an amendment that we debated earlier, and some things we would be better simply not doing. This is in the latter category. If you are going to do this then, as I said in Committee and I stand by it, this is a sensible clause.

I do not know which the three local authorities are. One is Bristol and one is Kingston, but whether the third is also Liberal Democrat run I do not know. The two named by the noble Baroness certainly are. Perhaps that says something; I do not know.

If it is made clear to local authorities what e-petitions are and what they are meant to do, if local authorities are given clear guidance on how to conduct them and if they are encouraged to do it, then I think that this should happen, particularly if it was a joint initiative between the LGA and the Government. If this were to be done in a serious, voluntary way, half the authorities in the country would set up schemes within 12 months and most of them within two years. Once it became known that other councils were doing it, there would be a demand for it locally and those councils that did not want to do it would be forced to do it by their residents, local newspapers and other local groups. There is no doubt about that and that is the way to do it.

Unfortunately, the people who write this legislation do not understand local government and how things work locally. They think that the only way to achieve anything through a local authority is to send out ever greater amounts of detailed prescribed legislation, delegated legislation, regulations and guidance and to keep beating the local authority over the head. That is way that it happens and local authorities, to their credit, survive.

Our experience of an e-petition facility is the No. 10 Downing Street website. The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said that it is a success and there is no doubt that some campaigns have been able to make successful use of it. But, as a means by which people can influence legislation and public policy, it is not very successful; in fact, it is completely useless in most cases. Most of the petitions receive not even a cursory consideration within the system of government and the corridors of power. For example, if petitions are put up on the site about matters that are the responsibility of particular departments, I see no indication that they are even referred to those departments for consideration; they are simply dealt with by No. 10 Downing Street.

To try to find out how government departments deal with all this—because if the legislation is going to insist that local authorities do this, it really ought to be a matter of, "Do as we do", and not, as it appears at the moment, "Do as we say, not as we do"—my noble friend Lady Hamwee and I put down a series of Written Questions, which we are continuing to pursue. The information that we are getting is fascinating. It is fascinating because we are not getting any information. We are simply being told, in the case of most departments, that they do not deal with petitions as petitions; they just regard them as correspondence and deal with them as such. So far as I can tell, no government department, including the Department of Communities and Local Government, which is sponsoring this legislation, has a petition facility on its own website, and, on the information that we have been given so far, only two of them, one of which I think is Defra, have set up a link to the No. 10 e-petition facility from their own websites. So the position within Whitehall is not satisfactory if the Government are promoting this for local authorities.

I am not going to go through the wodge of information that I have received in Written Answers in any detail, but I shall be compiling it all in due course. Two points come out of it. One is that the Bill will require local authorities to give special consideration to what at the moment are valid petitions and what in due course will be called Section 12 petitions—that is, petitions that fit within the Bill. None of that takes place in government departments at the moment. None of them is required to look at petitions in any particular way other than simply replying to them and giving an answer. One or two departments have said that they operate the "Whitehall standards". I am not sure what they are. They probably just refer to correspondence. It would be interesting to know whether there are any specific Whitehall standards in relation to petitions. I do not think that there are.

Nothing in the Bill about how a local authority will have to receive a petition, acknowledge it, deal with it, consider it and refer it to a committee to be considered if that is what people want, and nothing of the rules about what constitutes a petition—how many people have to be on it, and so on—applies to government departments. If the Government are insisting on all these things being forced on local authorities in this detailed way, they ought at least to get their own house in order and apply similar standards to their own departments—particularly to the Minister's own department, although the latest Answer that I have had from her suggests that people there are now thinking, "Well, if we're going to say that Westminster, Lancashire, Pendle and Bradford have got to do this, then perhaps we've got to do it as well". It will be interesting to see the result of this process. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 30 withdrawn.

Clause 11: Petition schemes

Amendment 31

Moved by Baroness Andrews

31: Clause 11, page 7, line 9, leave out "valid petitions made to the authority" and insert "petitions which are made to the authority and to which section 12 applies"

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, this group of amendments is significant with regard to the debates we had in Committee about the nature of petitions. I do not want to reiterate the arguments that we had; I shall say simply that one of the reasons we brought this part of the Bill forward is that we know that only one in five councils makes publicly available details of how to submit a petition. Based on the evidence that I presented in Committee, we believe that information explaining how authorities deal with petitions is inadequate and unsystematic; that many people in many communities are disadvantaged by that; and that there is an appetite in the community to know more, to do more, to have an impact and to know that changes follow when people can be bothered to petition. So we have concluded that there is a role for central government to build on best practice, as many noble Lords reiterated in Committee, to embed it and to open up some new opportunities so that the community itself can drive public service improvement. That ambition starts by ensuring that citizens across England and Wales know how to petition their council and know that their petition will trigger action.

The chapter will provide minimal frameworks that will give flexibility to authorities, protections for local authorities so that they are not overburdened, and guarantees of action and clarity for local people. To achieve that, we need to put some things in place, such as a definition of what a "local petition" is so that councils are not legally obliged to respond to every piece of correspondence they receive or to petitions on issues they cannot influence; a duty to acknowledge petitions and publicise responses to petitions and the authority's petition schemes so that people know that their petition will be dealt with; a duty to respond substantively to petitions, including an ability for petitions to trigger full council debates on issues that a large number of people support; and a way for people to appeal if they think their council has not given due consideration to their petition.

There are areas over which we diverge in principle as well as process, but I listened closely to concerns that there was too much detail in the Bill about what qualifies as a petition to which a principal local authority must respond. In Committee, noble Lords also made the important point that petitions that genuinely represent the concerns of the community should not be rejected for technical reasons, and I completely agree. Our amendments therefore make it clear that we expect councils to take petitions from local people seriously and to ensure that they are not rejected on technical grounds. They give greater flexibility and improve the Bill. More importantly, they will improve the petition process. I am grateful to noble Lords for supporting those improvements. I am particularly glad to have the support of noble Lords on the Benches opposite.

We had a major debate in Committee about the notion of "validity". I was persuaded by the arguments that were put principally by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Amendments 31, 41, 44, 54, 60, 68, 70, 78, 79, 80 and 94 therefore remove the label "valid". Noble Lords were concerned that that label might suggest that there was a class of petitions that fell into the category of "invalid", and we do not want to give any such impression; we never intended that there should be. The change clarifies that authorities will be legally obliged by this chapter to respond to certain petitions defined in Clauses 12 and 14. Any other petitions, however, such as petitions not signed by local people or those that relate to issues that the authority cannot influence, will not in any way be invalid. The difference will be that while local authorities can choose to respond to such petitions, they will not be legally obliged to respond to them. The change makes it clear that local authorities should consider how they will respond to all kinds of petitions, whether or not they are required by the law to do so.

We are also clear that citizens must be able to know what to expect. Local authorities will set out clearly and publicly their commitment to dealing with petitions in their petition scheme. Again, if local authorities want to go beyond what is strictly required in the criteria of the petition scheme in the Bill, Clause 18(1) provides that petition schemes can include elements beyond the requirement of the Bill. That means that an authority could specify in its scheme that it will respond to all petitions on all subjects, no matter if the petition is signed by a local person or about a local issue.

The scheme is a major step forward for local people. Whether they live in England or Wales, they will be guaranteed that their council will have a way of responding to petitions and, under Clause 11, they can find that on the council's website. Clause 11(6) provides that whatever the scheme says the council will do, it will be legally obliged to follow through. If the scheme says that the council will acknowledge petitions within two weeks, people will know when to expect the acknowledgement. There will no longer be any mystery about what happens when you submit a petition, whether that is for more allotments or better flood defences, or about when people will hear the council's decision on the matter.

There were also concerns about other details in the clause. The role of the petition organiser is very important. They will receive the acknowledgement and response from the authority; they will have the right to ask the Overview and Scrutiny Committee to review the adequacy of the response. It is vital that there is one person with whom the authority can deal to avoid the need, self-evidently, to contact all signatories individually.

We listened to concerns that petitions should not be rejected simply because they do not nominate a petition organiser. So Amendments 45, 52 and 93, taken together, provide that, if the petition does not identify an organiser, the petition will not be rejected. Instead, the authority will be required to contact signatories of the petition to agree with one signatory that they will act as the petition organiser. That is sensible: it avoids the local authority being able to give in to any temptation to reject a petition on technical grounds.

We also debated in Committee the merits of the requirements in Clause 12 that petitions must be addressed to the authority. Members of the Committee were concerned that "address" is an ambiguous term, and our intention was simply that the petition would need to be presented to the authority in order for the authority to consider it and take action. This is a little obvious, as it would not be reasonable to expect an authority to respond to a petition it has not received—we are getting into the realms of the surreal here. We therefore concluded that there is no need for an explicit provision on this subject. Amendment 42 removes the requirement that petitions must be addressed or presented to the authority. That will make the legislation clearer, and remove a potential obstacle.

Amendment 49 removes the requirement that petitioners must add the date along with their signature. Amendment 51 is consequential to that, and we were convinced by the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on this point. Indeed, he has tabled Amendment 50, which has exactly the same effect as my Amendment 49. I am very pleased that we agree on this major issue. I prefer to stick with my drafting: I think it neatly achieves the same effect. We want these proposals to make it as easy as possible for citizens to express their views. Adding a date beside a signature may be a small request, but we agree that the loss of response from the council is a high price to pay for petition organisers who simply forget to add a date column to their form.

In a similar vein, Amendment 61 removes the provision that petitions on the same subject as another petition received in the previous six months do not qualify as active. We are convinced here by the argument that it would be easy enough for authorities to respond to such a petition, but if no new information were available, they could simply say no. But it may be that, in that period of time, the situation has changed and it would be useful for the authority to reconsider the issue. The Government believe that removing this exclusion will not place significant burdens on authorities. We are persuaded of that; it will ensure that petitions are dealt with transparently. So I hope that will be welcomed by noble Lords.

During our debate in Grand Committee, Liberal Democrat Peers urged that e-petitions should be dealt with in exactly the same way as paper petitions. We are entirely in agreement here: we do not want people to be disadvantaged just because they signed an e-petition or visa versa. I should make it clear that the drafting of this chapter, where electronic petitions are provided for in a separate clause, does not mean that electronic petitions will be dealt with differently from paper petitions. It is a matter of drafting. I can reassure noble Lords that both electronic petitions and paper petitions will be part of a local authority's single petition scheme.

There is, however, one inherent difference, which we discussed. Principal local authorities will become aware of electronic petitions at an early stage, when someone first decides they want to set up an e-petition and asks the council to host a petition on its e-petition facility. At that point, by definition, there will not be any signatures. In contrast, authorities will first become aware of paper petitions when they are completed; the signatures will be there when the petitions are presented to the authorities. So, for instance, at the point the authority receives a request to host an e-petition, it cannot tell the organiser how it intends to deal with that petition. Given that it does not yet have any signatures, the authority will not be able to tell, for example, what the strength of local feeling is on the issue. The Bill's drafting is intended to recognise this single difference, but that is where the differences should end.

Amendment 58, therefore, remedies an inconsistency in the Bill's treatment of electronic and paper petitions by providing that electronic petitions should be acknowledged once they are completed, and that means that they will both be treated exactly the same. I believe that this package of amendments will help to ensure that these provisions put the needs and convenience of local people first. These provisions should be there to support communities so that they can express genuine concerns. They must avoid the potential for petitions to be rejected on technical grounds; they must build on good practice.

In Grand Committee, noble Lords worked hard to identify what could be done to streamline the process and to create a better system. I am very grateful for that work and am also grateful for the positive support of noble Lords opposite. I commend our amendments to the House.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Shadow Minister (Community Cohesion), Communities and Local Government 7:30 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I thank the Minister for tabling these amendments. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield and I have added our names to a number of them. Following a meeting with the noble Baroness between Grand Committee and today, she impressed on us that the Government had been looking again at the whole issue of petitions. I think that all of us who have followed the progress of this Bill knew that the Government would have to give ground and accept that they had not initially thought through properly the provisions contained in this Bill.

We were particularly exercised by the Government's peculiar notion of a Government-approved valid petition. In Grand Committee, my noble friend Lord Hanningfield gave an example of a petition which may not have been valid, but none the less should have been dealt with. He raised the obvious point that, if local authorities start throwing out petitions as not valid, that will alienate people—not help them to engage in the democratic process.

We were also against the concept of a petition organiser. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Morris moved amendments and argued eloquently that, by designating a petition organiser, the Government risked creating self-appointed busy-bodies who would hamper, not help, the engagement of local people with genuine grievances with their properly elected representatives.

The Government clearly were listening. These amendments as tabled may not have been exactly the amendments that we would have put down on Report, but the Minister has made a real attempt to deal with some of the sillier aspects of this Bill. The Opposition are relieved to support that. I would not like this to be seen, however, as carte blanche support for the Government: it is not. There are many problems remaining with the Bill, and although these amendments go some way towards dealing with some of our concerns, I reiterate our belief that some of these clauses are simply unnecessary.

The Government have a little luxury of time; because of the parliamentary Recess, there is a longer than usual pause between the stages of this Bill. I urge the Government to use this time constructively. I have signalled my support for these amendments as far as they go; I do not wish to repeat everything said in Grand Committee. The Opposition made ourselves abundantly clear then about what we thought of this Bill. Those thoughts are recorded in Hansardfor the Minister to refer to, and the Government could yet make a better Bill. I hope they will choose to do so.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, other than referring to two things the noble Baroness said in moving these amendments, I am not going to make any general comments about the petition sections of this Bill. I will reserve those for Amendment 40, which is the important stand part debate. I will respond to the Government's amendments, and I am not going to press Amendment 50, which was put down by mistake. I had not actually noticed that the Government had taken the date out. That was my fault.

The Minister congratulated those of us who took part in all those Grand Committee sessions. She said noble Lords "worked hard". I thought the Government simply thought we were hard work. Either way, I take it as a compliment and thank her for that. She also repeated what she has said throughout this Bill, that only one in five councils make information available about how to provide petitions, and we just disagree about the facts there. What she means is that when her officials looked on council websites, they could only find that information on one in five websites. That is different from whether information is made available or not. In the case of my own council, information is made widely available on the announcement notices for meetings, which are stuck up everywhere. It is also on the website if you look for it.

The real problem here is one I have raised previously in that a lot of council websites are a bit old-fashioned, and some are pretty awful. I am not suggesting that the Government bring in a detailed Bill to help councils put their websites together, although that would be their approach under this. I am suggesting that the Government, together with the Local Government Association, should spread best practice. Some councils have very good websites, but that does not include my own, I am afraid.

The problem is that there is an old-fashioned approach to some websites; they provide a limited amount of information which is set out in traditional council-ese that those of us who are used to agenda papers will understand. A lot of websites are very good at telling you how to get somebody to do a special refuse collection from your backyard if you are throwing furniture out, how to get the rat-catcher out or promoting events in the local park, but not so good at promoting local democratic involvement or making it easier for people to find out what is happening at the next area committee meeting. I am glad to have the nodding support of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who is in his place now.

I will go through some of the amendments very quickly. A lot of them are to take out the word "valid". I am extremely grateful for this as I waged a campaign against "valid". I fear that they will now be called Section 12 petitions, at least within local authorities, unless people think of a better term. Perhaps they will be called parliamentary petitions, although that would give the wrong impression, like when we used to have parliamentary trains. The Government have seen sense on this; this simple amendment does a lot to change the difficulties that many of us foresaw of this scheme discouraging or even preventing a lot of the petition work which takes place already and restricting people's rights.

The removal of the requirement that the petition should be addressed to the council in some formal way is common sense. On the stuff about organisers, I agree entirely with what the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said. We were arguing together about that. On the date, the Government have made a common-sense change. Making it absolutely clear that e-petitions and paper petitions will be treated the same by the procedures of the council is sensible. The six-month rule will stop councils saying that they have had one petition and the next five that come from different parts of the area on the same subject will be rejected simply because they have already had one, or that they will reject one after four months if circumstances change. That is absolute common sense.

I can only thank the Minister and her Bill team, who listened to our arguments and agreed that at least on some things we were talking sense. I regret that they did not move on some other matters, but at least within the confines of this large, bureaucratic and structurally wrong scheme and its restrictions, these are very sensible amendments. We will look back at those Grand Committee sittings and think at least we did something to make these provisions work a bit better.

Amendment 31 agreed.

Amendments 32 to 36 not moved.

Amendment 37

Moved by Lord Tope

37: Clause 11, page 7, line 22, after "with" insert "the statutory provisions of"

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 7:45 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 39 as well. The Minister has been clear throughout in recognising that petitions come in a wide variety of forms. More often than not, they are not set out in the way originally envisaged in the Bill. We have just debated a clutch of amendments which in effect recognised that. The purpose of Amendment 37 is that a local authority must in its petition scheme comply with the statutory requirements—that goes without saying—but that it will not necessarily be in trouble if it does not comply with some of the voluntary aspects of the scheme. There is always the danger that some vexatious people may apply for judicial review or refer to the district auditor or any number of other places. The amendment makes it clear that that is the case.

On Amendment 39, the Minister has told us on several occasions that local authorities may act as they wish within the statutory provisions on petitions. The amendment gives effect to those words and makes it clear that local authorities are free, if they wish, to depart from the voluntary aspects of their petition schemes to enable them to be more flexible and, more often than not, more obliging in dealing with the petition; and to enable them not to be unnecessarily restricted by their petition scheme. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, we debated this a little in Grand Committee and I am happy to try to reassure noble Lords that their concerns are misplaced. In fact, I suggest that Amendment 37 might have the opposite effect to the one intended.

The petitions regime, which this chapter introduces, does not impose any onerous burden on local authorities. If a council gets a petition it must acknowledge it and take appropriate action in respect of it. As a matter of ordinary public law, if a council received a petition and responded in a wholly unreasonable manner, it would even now be liable to challenge by judicial review or perhaps, although it is rather more difficult to see how, by the district auditor. The situation will not be all that different after the petitions provisions of the chapter are in place.

One difference will be that the profile of petitions will be raised. People will know where and how to submit petitions and, crucially, that they will be guaranteed a response. There is a theoretical chance, I admit, that raising the profile of petitions and increasing the number that councils receive could lead to an increase in legal action against councils. Our judgment is that it will not. If all councils have a clear procedure for dealing with petitions, this will serve to protect them from any accusation that they have acted in an unreasonable manner. All a council has to do to avoid legal action is to comply with its own procedures. That is no different from what it has to do in relation to every other function it discharges.

As noble Lords are aware, the Bill requires principal local authorities to have a petition scheme which secures at least the requirements set out in this chapter. An authority's scheme can go wider than these provisions but Clause 11(6) provides that, whatever commitments are made in a scheme, the local authority is legally bound to comply with them. The problem with Amendment 37 is that it limits the requirements in the subsection to cover only the statutory parts of its scheme—that is, only those which stem from this Bill. If we were to accept the amendment, local authorities could set a petition scheme which voluntarily goes wider than the requirements of the Bill, and then pick and choose whether to uphold the commitments they had made in their formal scheme when dealing with any petitions which fall under the voluntary part of the scheme. This would certainly create a two-tier scheme where it would not be clear to petitioners how their petition would be dealt with.

Amendment 37 would therefore increase the risk of legal challenge because it would invite argument that the council had committed to doing one thing in its petition scheme and then done something else entirely. The amendment would not oust any court jurisdiction to consider whether an authority had acted reasonably in its response to a petition; it would just mean that, instead of assessing whether the council had complied with its published procedures, a court would have to examine wider issues of reasonableness. We share the objective that citizens should have a clear understanding of how their local authority will deal with petitions. However, I fear that Amendment 37 would undermine that objective. Therefore, on that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw it.

Amendment 39 would insert express provision that nothing in the chapter,

"prevents a ... local authority from relaxing the requirements of its petition schemes so as to apply it more widely than is required by this Chapter or the scheme".

The concern expressed by the noble Lord is that, once a principal local authority must have a petition scheme, for it to act in response to petitions which fall outside that scheme would be considered in some way to be unreasonable or a waste of resources. I do not believe that this concern is justified. I do not think that any aspect of the requirements of the Bill could be interpreted as imposing any sort of exclusive set of obligations for the handling of petitions. As such, I believe that there would be no grounds for criticising local authorities for continuing to exercise their public law powers in response to petitions which fall outside their petition scheme.

The provisions of this chapter are deliberately framed in a manner which makes it clear that authorities are given a very wide discretion on what to include in their scheme, and how to respond to petitions. The Bill does not set fixed limits on how a function is to be discharged by principal authorities. While local authorities must do at least what their petition scheme says they will, they will have the discretion to respond to any petition, even if it does not meet the requirements of the scheme which they have set out. Nothing in the Bill prevents local authorities responding to any petition they receive.

I hope that the noble Lord finds those assurances helpful and that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply and for the comments she made on Amendment 37. I understand the point that she was making. Perhaps we should have made clearer our intention to include the agreement of the petitioners. I accept that the amendment's drafting does not make clear our intention, which is to enable greater flexibility in agreement with the petitioners.

On Amendment 39, I am grateful to the Minister for confirming what we believe to be the case. Amendment 39 seeks to include in the Bill what the Minister has just said to avoid any possible doubt or misunderstanding. As I say, I am grateful to the Minister and we will consider her remarks further. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 37 withdrawn.

Amendments 38 and 39 not moved.

Amendment 40

Moved by Lord Greaves

40: Clause 11, leave out Clause 11

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I think that this is my last big blast at the whole principle of these petition clauses. There will be one or two later amendments but they and the stand-part measures will cover the detail.

Amendment 40 seeks to leave out Clause 11, which sets up the petition schemes. All the succeeding clauses concern their details and procedures; Clause 11 is the principal clause. It seems to me that throughout our debates on these matters we have tried to put forward four broad themes as being the reasons why this approach to a petition scheme is not the best one, and could be dangerous. First, these are detailed, top-down rules set by central Government and laid down in legislation and in guidance which will apply to all local authorities. They will apply in all circumstances, in all types of localities and types of councils, and in all circumstances in terms of the issues that the petitions concern. Despite the Government's response that the whole thing is flexible, and that local councils will be able to deal with the matter as they wish, and despite some of the very useful changes which have been made between Committee and Report, we submit that this is still a top-down, bureaucratic, legalistic, inflexible system. It will cause problems because people will have to spend a lot of time working out how to deal with it, whether this petition comes within the rules, whether that one does not, and if so, how it will be dealt with, whether the petition is about subjects which the council can legitimately deal with, and, if not, whether it should be passed to somebody else, and other issues. If only two or three petitions a year are presented to a council, these issues will not matter too much, and will be sorted out. However, if 500 petitions a year are presented to a council, it will have to employ at least one person, and probably two, to deal with them, whereas in the normal circumstances petitions are simply acknowledged and passed to the appropriate body in the council to deal with, which might constitute a committee, the executive, a lead member or the full council, or it might simply be a letter from a council officer saying, "We have understood this and this is what we are going to do"—or are not going to do.

At present, petitions are dealt with sensibly and flexibly. We do not oppose the Government's general view that there ought to be a better system in many councils. Indeed, it is widely thought that Hazel Blears is the Minister really pushing petitions. She made a speech about this only last week. Salford is one of the councils whose method of dealing with petitions we are having difficulty finding out about. It does not appear to have a scheme or to deal with petitions very well. However, I believe that Hazel Blears should sort out her own council rather than imposing this measure on the rest of us. Detailed, top-down rules are not the way forward.

Secondly, the detail of the rules and of the legislation is ridiculous. I have said this before and I say it again because I have spoken to a lot of councillors and a few council officials from around the country. I have asked every one of them that I have talked to at conferences and other places, and in e-mail discussion forums, "Do you know that this is being landed on you? Do you know it is happening? Have you been consulted about it? What do you think of it?" First, they do not have the slightest idea it is happening; secondly, when I tell them what is in it, they are horrified; and thirdly, they say, "Why don't you do something about it?", to which I say, "I have been trying but we really need to persuade the Government that a change of approach is necessary". The detail and extent of the scheme is not the approach. In Committee, I tried to get the Government to accept a more framework-based approach, with a page of legislation at the most, and then trust councils to get on with it.

The third problem is that it is too bureaucratic and too legalistic, with the result that it will cost money and resources. There is no doubt that it will be expensive to run. It is not clear where councils are supposed to get those extra resources from to deal with the schemes in this legalistic and bureaucratic way.

The fourth danger is that it will restrict people and it will impose a straitjacket on informal and spontaneous activity. Some of the amendments brought forward by the Government have dealt with that. Nevertheless, a great deal of the devil is in the detail and the detail will be in the guidance to be put forward by the Government. We should ask ourselves what will be in that guidance. We do not know. The guidance may reverse some of the improvements to the Bill. I am sure that the Minister does not want that to happen.

There are three ways to do this. The first is to do it through what I call gullible legislation, which pins people down and does not let them move unless they do exactly what you want. The second way is through best practice, advice and encouragement, which we would prefer. We believe it could be done perfectly adequately without legislation, if only the Government were prepared to let go and trust local authorities. The third way is through genuine framework legislation, which still leaves a great deal of leeway for local authorities to be trusted. Regrettably, the Government have rejected that. If the Government were talking about framework legislation, we would not be totally opposed to going further than petitions and making a legal right of residents to attend meetings to put a point of view when councils are making decisions. Many Liberal Democrat councils now do that, as do others. That would enable people to talk to the decision-makers when they make decisions. Every month of my life, I take part in meetings like that and they are very successful. If the Government were serious about it, they would roll the whole thing up in a community empowerment provision in the draft Community Empowerment Bill, but they will not do that at the moment.

The noble Baroness set out four principles in Grand Committee, reported in Hansard at col. 39 on 26 January 2009. The first is that people should be able to have their say about the services for which they pay. We agree with that; we have no problem with that; and we have no problem with the important role that petitions can play in that.

Secondly, they have a responsibility to listen and give feedback on petitions. We have no problem with that; sensible councils do that already. If the Government want to put it in legislation as a general duty, we do not have a great problem with that, although we would prefer a voluntary approach.

Thirdly, there must be a clear process for dealing with petitions and responding to them but there must also be flexibility and autonomy. We believe that the words of the Minister in Committee do not tally with what is written in the Bill.

Fourthly, we should all build on best practice. I return to the basic principle that if you want to build on best practice, you have to know what best practice is. You will never know what it is unless there is diversity of practice across the land. As long as everyone does the same thing, in the same way, under government regulations, best practice will never break through because the authorities with the ambition, enthusiasm and vision to create best practice will be prevented from doing so.

My final point is that it is very important that a petition system is not a sham; that petitions are seen to be dealt with seriously; and that, even if they do not get what they want out of it, people see that it has been discussed and dealt with properly. There is nothing between us on that. We do not believe that the way to do it is through eight pages and 3,000 words of prescriptive legislation. We believe that there should be a much more flexible and voluntary approach.

At this stage, we will not agree on this, but I put the case again in the hope that someone may listen. This Bill has a long way to go. Once it has gone through your Lordships' House, it has to go to the Commons, and by that time people in local government around the country may realise what is in it and what is happening and pressure may be put on the Government to cause them to change their mind. I hope so. For the moment, we can only argue the case. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Shadow Minister (Community Cohesion), Communities and Local Government 8:00 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I see the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has tabled "leave out" amendments to each of the clauses which deal with petitions. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield and I, in Grand Committee, added our names to all the equivalent stand-part Questions. We argued then, and I have much sympathy with the noble Lord when he says today, that these clauses are not necessary. We argued this point at great, one might even say exhaustive, length in Committee. I am not sure that I have much more to add by way of fresh argument. Our position remains that there is too much detail. Telling local authorities how to deal with petitions is a bit like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.

However, as I indicated earlier, the Government have been forced to concede various points on this issue. They have listened to us up to a point, and if they refuse to listen to us after that point, then perhaps they will simply have to learn by their mistakes.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that we do not need these clauses in the Bill. The record will show very clearly that that is our position, just as it will show for ever more that the Government insisted on their course of action. I think that my comments can be applied to all the "leave out clause" amendments in this chapter of the Bill. I do not think I will make our case stronger simply by going over the arguments.

In the mean time, I urge the Minister to think about what we have said. I hope that she will be able to come back at Third Reading, which will fall after the Easter Recess, and tell us that she has been able to make a better Bill.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, on the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I do not think that there is anything I can do to persuade him otherwise. I do not think there is any point in reiterating any of the detail or the argument that we went through in Committee, as the noble Baroness said, quite exhaustively. Clearly, there is agreement about the principles that we are trying to achieve, which the noble Lord read out. We believe that all the clauses in the Bill are necessary. They contribute to a system in which petitions are not something which people in local government try to get off their desks as fast as possible, with the least possible fuss, but instead are seen as valuable sources of information about what people want in order to ensure that their local community is somewhere they want to live and that local services meet their needs.

Clauses have not been drafted in isolation. We have, for example, learnt from Medway council, whose petition scheme offers petitioners a right of review very similar to the one in Clause 17—best practice from which we have learnt. In the past year, petitioners have been so satisfied with the responses they have received that only four out of 89 have used that right.

We believe there is a need for a legal framework to ensure that local petitions are taken seriously. We want to balance that with the need to keep burdens on councils to a minimum, particularly in these very difficult times, when it is very important that people know how the money that they contribute through their taxes is spent and how their concerns are taken into account by local decision-makers. We need to balance that with enough flexibility so that the best councils can continue to build on best practice and continue to innovate. We believe that we have achieved that in the Bill, particularly with the amendments we have made. The provisions in the Bill are so flexible that they do not remove anything that already exists. They provide guarantees that people will receive answers when they petition their principal local authority, but they do not restrict which petitions authorities can respond to, as we discussed in Grand Committee. The proposals do not create a two-tier system, they do not increase the complexity of arrangements for citizens and we are alive to the need to minimise burdens on councils now more than ever.

If councils are to be legally required to respond to petitions, we need to make sure that the requirement extends only to issues of genuine concern to their communities and that petitions are not exploited mischievously. Clause 14 provides that principal authorities do not need to take steps with regard to vexatious, abusive or otherwise inappropriate petitions. This gives councils the ability to ensure, for instance, that their e-petition system is not abused by those who want to stir up community tensions or a hate campaign against a local family or council officer. Clause 16 also protects councils from being bogged down in replying to petitions on issues which they are unable to influence.

However, by setting out a requirement for authorities to have a petition scheme, Clause 11 puts in place the foundation stone to ensure that our proposals on petitions meet the four key principles to which the noble Lord referred. I hope that he will think about the changes that I have made, that we have tried very hard to do some of the things that he wanted, and that the principle, as set out in the Bill, is something that he could live with.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, if this legislation is passed, I shall certainly live with it and I shall assist whatever local authorities I have influence with to cope with it in a sensible way, because that is what local authorities do—they spend half their lives trying to cope with government legislation in a sensible way. That task is sometimes easy and sometimes hard, and our job is to try to make it as easy as possible. However, having set out the principles and the genuine differences between us on how to achieve a common end, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 40 withdrawn.

Clause 12: Valid petitions

Amendments 41 and 42

Moved by Baroness Andrews

41: Clause 12, page 7, line 26, leave out from beginning to "which" in line 27 and insert "This section applies to a petition made to a principal local authority"

42: Clause 12, page 7, line 28, leave out paragraph (a)

Amendments 41 and 42 agreed.

Amendment 43 not moved.

Amendments 44 and 45

Moved by Baroness Andrews

44: Clause 12, page 7, line 31, leave out "validly"

45: Clause 12, page 7, line 33, leave out paragraph (d)

Amendments 44 and 45 agreed.

Amendment 46 not moved.

Amendment 47

Moved by Lord Greaves

47: Clause 12, page 7, line 36, after "enactment" insert "or relates to a planning or licensing application"

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, with the leave of the House I am moving the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee. Also in the group are Amendment 48 in my name, which is an overlapping amendment, and Amendment 83, which is similar.

One of the things that we tried to do in Grand Committee was to establish in which areas the scheme proposed by the Government would get in the way of things that the council was doing already, either through other legislation which involves legal consultation and processes and the ability of members of the public to make representations as part of those processes, or simply by carrying out consultation processes on its policies in whatever areas they might be.

The amount of public consultation that takes place nowadays is fairly large; it is certainly enormous compared with the situation 30 or 40 years ago. Quite often in districts where councils are trying to make a difference—because they are thought to be disadvantaged in some way, or there are environmental or housing problems or whatever, or they are putting forward regeneration or planning schemes—a lot of consultation is involved. The amount is so great that people often complain of consultation fatigue and say, "We don't want to be consulted any more; we just want you to get on with it, please, whatever you are doing". A huge amount of consultation already takes place.

However, in planning and licensing applications a formal, legal consultation process is set down involving deadlines, procedures as to what has to happen to representations, the relevant council committees and the various ways that the applications can be dealt with. That is in legislation. For example, there is a deadline by which councils are supposed to deal with planning applications—eight weeks, or 13 weeks for major applications. Councils will have their own systems for advertising applications, notifying neighbours and asking for representations, which may well involve petitions. They often do; if people get worked up about a scheme, they get their neighbours to sign a petition or they go to the town centre and sign one. A lot of petitions are submitted as part of the normal planning application process.

As regards the wider process—the plan-making process, which now involves the local development frameworks—a huge amount of consultation takes place. The planning authority has to draw up a scheme of public involvement, although I have forgotten the exact terminology for it, which is set out in the Planning Act which we took through this House only recently. The representations are fed into the planning process and the council will have a detailed scheme as to how that works, which may involve petitions.

Putting those petitions into the Section 12 petition scheme, as it will inevitably be called, is ridiculous. It will not work, because petitions will also have to go into the formal planning process, anyway. If people demanded that they should go to an overview and scrutiny committee and then that there should be a debate at the full council meeting, in some cases that would begin to border on the unlawful. That is because the way in which the process has to be done is set out in the planning legislation, the planning regulations, and the council's adopted schemes that have to be approved by the Secretary of State and are formal documents.

Equally, it is important that licensing applications are dealt with in a proper manner. In taxi, alcohol or premises licensing, you are dealing with a quasi-judicial function where the council has by law to set up a separate committee. The members of that committee have to have training and they make the decisions. The rest of the council cannot do anything about it if it does not like it—as I know to my cost—when they make wrong decisions. Any representations have to go into that process and if they do not, it is a waste of time anyway, because they will not have any impact on the decisions that are made about the issue of the petition. Planning and licensing applications that are dealt with in legislation ought to be excluded from this particular petition scheme. It is common sense that they should be excluded, and if they are not, councils will get into real difficulties in how to deal with them, and they may get into legal difficulties if they start trying to deal with legitimate planning application or licensing matters outside the particular tram lines of the planning and licensing systems.

We are not trying to be awkward in any way in putting forward these amendments. We are very concerned that the Government have not thought the provision through properly and have got it wrong. I do not ask that these amendments be approved tonight—well, I do, but I do not expect them to be approved—but I ask the Government to think very clearly about these matters.

My final point is less important in terms of the legal background to all these decisions. Let us imagine that a council is proposing to build a new leisure centre with three possible sites and it is carrying out a formal public consultation process. Petitions may well come in with regard to that. People may want it in one particular site, residents in one area may say they do not want it anywhere near them under any circumstances, thank you very much. Whatever the petition says, they may say they want it somewhere completely different. They may say they do not want it at all, or it is the wrong sort of leisure centre.

Petitions come in as part of consultation processes, so it would be wrong to have a system set down in the law of the land that says that petitions coming in have to be dealt with in some way outside that process, and that people have a right to have full council debate before the consultation process is properly concluded, for example. The council will come into it at the end of the process, when the recommendation to the council is made and the council will accept that recommendation, or it may refer it back. But it would be wrong to have people able to go to the full council half way through the process to pre-empt a carefully structured consultation that is taking place, and a carefully structured decision-making process. It would be disruptive and a recipe for people who understand how to work the system to try to pre-empt decisions in ways that would not be helpful to good decision-making.

I am totally in favour of democratic decision-making, and of people being involved in decision-making, but where major schemes like this have been put forward—or even small schemes such as what to do about a piece of land in somebody's back street—when a consultation process is taking place in a proper structured way, it would be completely wrong to allow petitions from people to bypass that and go through this new system. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Patel of Bradford Lord Patel of Bradford Government Whip, Government Whip 8:15 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, Amendments 47, 48 and 83 relate to the Government's public commitment to use the order-making power in Clause 19 to exclude planning and licensing applications from the scope of the duty to respond to petitions.

I begin by making it clear that the list of issues which are excluded from the duty to respond to petitions should be very limited. We know that building petitions into council decision-making processes will empower people. We therefore want to minimise the issues which are excluded from the duty to respond to petitions, to keep the scope of the duty as broad as possible.

There are some issues which it makes sense to exclude, such as licensing and planning applications. We intend to do this because we want to avoid setting up parallel routes for considering local people's concerns. There are already extensive processes for public involvement in planning and licensing applications, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has said, so we do not think that petitions on these subjects need to go through this separate system.

I have a technical reservation about Amendments 47 and 48. Although these amendments capture the broad aims of our intention, the drafting would need to be longer and more complex than they suggest. For instance, we want to ensure that, in addition to planning applications, planning enforcement and the decision not to enforce would be excluded. I refer noble Lords who would like to see what this extra detail would look like to SI 3261, the Overview and Scrutiny (Reference by Councillors) (Excluded Matters) (England) Order 2008. This order took the same approach for the Councillor Call for Action as we intend to take for petitions. It excludes planning and licensing matters from the scope of the Councillor Call for Action power and is over 30 lines long. Adding these provisions to the Bill would therefore make this chapter substantially longer.

Amendment 48 contains one additional exclusion: it provides that issues on which the authority is currently carrying out a formal public consultation should be excluded. This is an interesting idea and the rationale is the same as for excluding planning and licensing applications, namely that we do not want to duplicate public engagement processes which already exist. However, I think that further reflection is needed with local government on how such an exclusion might work in practice. For instance, I know that many community groups form petitions precisely to respond to consultations. I wonder if an electronic petition signed by 500 people differs in any real way from 500 separate e-mails sent responding to a consultation, with identical text provided on the website of a community group.

So I think that we should reflect further on this idea and seek views from the sector. I have a similar worry about Amendment 83, which provides a narrow order-making power so that planning and licensing matters may be excluded from the scope of the topics which trigger a response. It is worth noting here that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee did not find the order-making powers in the Bill inappropriate. It is our intention to use the order-making power to exclude these issues, and I believe that issues should be excluded only if there is a genuine reason to do so, so that we do not dilute the benefits of these proposals. However, my concern with such a narrow order-making power is that it would not enable us to respond to any new ideas, such as the one that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has put forward, which might be suggested by local authorities themselves in response to consultation.

These issues need to be thought through in detail, and using secondary legislation will allow us to do that. The Government intend to consult on which issues should be excluded from the duty to respond to petitions after the Bill receives Royal Assent. We intend to keep exclusions to a minimum, but it is important that the exclusions should be able to respond to the suggestions of local authorities themselves. I therefore ask that Amendments 47, 48 and 83 not be pressed so that we can reflect on these issues in more detail, in collaboration with the sector, and put forward exclusions in secondary legislation which achieve our joint aims.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I think that that is a two and a half cheers answer. I am not suggesting in any way that our wording is ideal, so I thank the Minister very much for that answer. His answers are improving as the night goes on. I am not familiar with the overview and scrutiny order to which he referred me but I shall no doubt become familiar with it in the coming days and have a good look at it. I thank him for that. I particularly thank him for the very clear commitment he has given on licensing and planning—that the Government's intentions are exactly as we have put forward. I think that that was the first time the Government have stated that quite so clearly. That provides at least some justification for our having this discussion.

On the other issue—general formal consultations—I accept and understand that getting a precise formulation for this is more difficult because it is not referring to existing statutes. It may well be that the scheme will be drawn up so that rather than being excluded, such petitions will be included in the consultations already taking place. "Redirecting" is a more positive word than "exclusion". However, that is just some thinking off the top of my head which occurred to me while I was listening to the Minister's very welcome comments. On that basis, I have some pleasure in begging leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 47 withdrawn.

Amendment 48 not moved.

Amendment 49

Moved by Baroness Andrews

49: Clause 12, page 7, line 41, leave out subsection (3)

Amendment 49 agreed.

Photo of Baroness Pitkeathley Baroness Pitkeathley Labour

My Lords, as Amendment 49 has been agreed to, I cannot call Amendment 50 for reasons of pre-emption.

Amendment 50 not moved.

Amendments 51 and 52

Moved by Baroness Andrews

51: Clause 12, page 8, line 4, leave out "For the purposes of subsection (3)," and insert "For the purposes of this Chapter—

(a) a signature counts if (and only if) the petition gives the signatory's name and address (which may be an address where the signatory lives, works or studies);

(b) "

52: Clause 12, page 8, line 8, leave out subsection (5)

Amendments 51 and 52 agreed.

Amendment 53

Moved by Lord Greaves

53: Clause 12, leave out Clause 12

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, whatever my more general views of the Government, I do not see why I should not say when I am content with one of their amendments.

Clause 12 will no doubt now need a new heading, because it is headed "Valid petitions". We will discover by what process headings of clauses get changed. I attempted to amend this heading in Grand Committee, when I tried to get rid of "valid", but the Public Bill Office told me that I cannot table an amendment to change a clause heading. However, the process by which the change is made will now occur. How it will happen I am not quite sure. It is probably a bit like how the Conservatives used to choose their leader in the old days. It will emerge.

There is only one remaining issue with which I am not happy: the requirement, which was the old paragraph (c), that a petition under Clause 12 has to be signed by at least the specified number of people who live, work or study in the authority's area. There is a parallel provision somewhere about the number of people who have to sign a petition to have it debated. It seems to us that this provision is still unnecessary and will lead to a lot of problems locally. The worst thing that could happen is that an authority could set the bar too high, so that lots of perfectly reasonable petitions would not qualify to be dealt with in this way.

We talked in Grand Committee, so we do not want to do it again, about the circumstances in which people in a particular street or local area might want to sign a petition, and about the size of a village, or whatever it may be, in relation to the size of a city. Just because an authority is big, such as a large city or a large county, does not mean that it does not have small communities, which might want to put forward a petition in which quite low numbers might be appropriate—20, 25 or 30—whereas the authority might say, "We are a big county, or a big city, and we will set the bar at 1,000", or whatever. It seems to us that this matter should be left to local common sense and not be dealt with through an attempt to lay down arbitrary numbers.

In Grand Committee, the answer from Ministers was that authorities will be able to set different levels and numbers for different purposes. It is not easy to see how to do this in any sensible way that will not get the barrack-room lawyers really going. The context of the petition is important, as is its purpose. It may be that a petition covers a whole county, but only covers a relatively small number of people who have a particular interest in something. Rock climbers, for example, may be interested in a few crags in the county and petition the county planning department over something in relation to them. It may be people sailing on mill lodges or reservoirs. It may be anything. It may be people who are a special interest group, who are only a few and so widespread that they cannot be related to the communities in which they live.

I have been trying to think of how this could be done since Grand Committee. It is going to be very difficult and I ask the Government to look at this again. We have time left in this House and we have the whole of the House of Commons procedures when the Bill goes there, so they have a chance to do so. They have not got it right yet, so I hope that they will look at it again. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 8:30 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I do not think that I can add anything to what I said in Grand Committee on this important clause and on this element of it. In subsection (2), which states that petition schemes must specify the number of signatures of people who live, work and study in a local authority's area, we intended to free local authorities to decide for themselves what the threshold number of signatures should be. The noble Lord would surely approve of that in principle. When we consulted about this, there was no consensus on what the threshold should be, so this clause allows local flexibility. Some issues are of concern to the whole borough, whereas others are of concern to people in just one street or people from a particular ethnic group or with particular interests. Some authorities already respond to all petitions that they receive. Because we want to minimise bureaucracy, the Government urge those authorities to continue to do so. Other authorities may believe that a higher threshold for the number of signatures is more appropriate—for example, because the population in their area is very high.

As I said before, principal authorities can set different thresholds for different topics, proportionate to how many people are affected by different issues. The threshold chosen will be in an authority's scheme, which must be publicised under Clause 11(4). That will ensure that local people know what the threshold is for their area. We do not think that the requirement on authorities is burdensome. It will be open to authorities to take account of the number of signatures that a petition has attracted in deciding on the proportionate response to it. We expect that authorities will set a very low threshold—perhaps less than 10 signatures—for petitions that are guaranteed a response.

We want to ensure that responding to petitions is not a simple tick-box exercise. That is why we propose that authorities should have to set local thresholds at which petitions will trigger a debate of the full council, which is of course a slightly different issue. A threshold is needed there to ensure that issues of significant concern to the community are debated without overloading the council. These thresholds would be 5 per cent of the local population at most.

I appreciate that the noble Lord is struggling with the concept of some of the process, but Clause 12 is so important to the whole architecture and purpose of what we are trying to do that I hope that he will not press his attempt to remove it entirely.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I shall not press my attempt to remove the clause because that would destroy the architecture. I would like to destroy the architecture but not in this way.

The Minister talked about a threshold. I do not understand how you determine different thresholds for different issues in the same council or even within the same department. An authority might have a threshold for street lighting but there might be a petition from people in one street who want a new street light. In looking at that petition, the authority will have to take into account how many people live in that street. A petition for better lighting on the main road or the local motorway is a different matter altogether and many more people may be required to make up the threshold. If only 10 people come forward, the authority will say that it is less important. Potholes are a topical subject following the winter weather that we have had. There might be five huge potholes in a dead-end street. A petition about that signed by all the residents in that street might have 20 names on it, but people in the rest of the county are not going to sign it.

The point that I am trying to make is that the issues on which people petition are so varied that it is not just the subject of a petition that might be liable to different thresholds but the context—that is, the number of people who can legitimately sign it. I do not think that the concept of thresholds is at all sensible. Thresholds are rigid and councils will have enormous difficulty with them. Those who do not want petitions will set high thresholds, whereas those who are quite happy to deal with petitions will set low ones, which will be meaningless. In a big county or big city, a threshold of 10 for a petition of any kind is meaningless. It indicates that the council will accept everything. Therefore, I believe that the Government have to think again about this. They have time and I hope that they will do so. I have done my bit to try to persuade them to do so, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 53 withdrawn.

Clause 13: Requirement to acknowledge valid petitions

Amendment 54

Moved by Baroness Andrews

54: Clause 13, page 8, line 12, leave out "valid petition" and insert "petition to which section 12 applies"

Amendment 54 agreed.

Amendments 55 to 57 not moved.

Amendment 58

Moved by Baroness Andrews

58: Clause 13, page 8, line 20, leave out subsection (3)

Amendment 58 agreed.

Amendment 59

Moved by Lord Greaves

59: Clause 13, leave out Clause 13

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, Amendment 59 picks up any remaining issues in Clause 13. It is, effectively, a stand-part debate on Clause 13. "A requirement to acknowledge valid petitions"—those in Clause 12—is another heading that will have to be changed. I clearly do not want to remove this clause as a whole. The particular issue that I want to raise at this last attempt is in Clause 13(1)(b), which refers to,

"what the authority has done or proposes to do in response to the petition".

It says that the acknowledgement must give information about that.

In Grand Committee, I tried to rewrite Clauses 13 and 14, in a fairly ambitious way, to get them to make more sense. There are two different issues here. One is the procedural issue of how a petition is dealt with, and one is the substantive issue of what is being dealt with. Take, for example, a petition about potholes. The procedural issue concerns how the petition is received by the council; whether it is accepted under Clause 12; how it is acknowledged; what information people are given about how it will be dealt with; and how it is dealt with. Is it dealt with by an officer or a councillor? Does it go to a particular committee for discussion? Does it go to a joint committee of two authorities for discussion, as it perhaps would on my patch? What happens? That is the procedural side, which people need to know about.

On the other hand, there is what the council will do about the issue that is referred to in the petition. I call this the substantive issue. Clauses 13 and 14 would be a great deal better if these two responsibilities of the council were dealt with separately in this way. That did not meet with the agreement of the Government when I moved the amendments in Grand Committee. They have done nothing about that. We are left with quite a messy series of detailed rules and regulations, which are difficult to understand, set out in nearly two pages of primary legislation.

I ask the Government to look at these clauses again and try to rewrite them so that they make sense to anybody who picks them up and reads them—or gets a report from their council, setting them out—if and when this legislation is passed. We all understand how it will work now, but it took us quite a long time to sit down, understand it and work it out. I ask the Government to look at separating the procedural responses to petitions from how the substantive matter in the petition is dealt with. They are two separate things, but they are muddled here. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour

My Lords, not for the first time the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, makes very good points in favour of something that he then moves should not stand part of the Bill. I realise that this is a peg on which he can introduce the argument. I understand that, but we are really dealing here with the nub of a great deal of local people's disenchantment with the effectiveness or significance of a petition that may have generated a great deal of heat. Noble Lords know the situation. People with whom you discuss a subject will say, "I went to a meeting. I supported something and signed a petition, but nothing happened to it". What they mean is that it went to the council, which decided not to take action on it. As politicians, we have been accused time after time of failing to do something. The person saying that means, "You have not done what I wanted you to do, even though I am not sure what I wanted. Once you have taken action, I am agin it".

Rightly, Clause 13 lays down not merely that it should be acknowledged but that action should be taken on it and that the petitioners, through the voice of the senior petitioner, should be told precisely what action is to be taken. If it falls short of what the petitioners wanted, they have access to their councils and through the press; they will continue their campaign. It is unreasonable to say to the Government and the Minister that in attempting to put together a package that deals with petitions, the answer is to strike out Clauses 13 and 14 and produce a new comprehensive clause that deals with the points. As far as I can see, the Government are on good ground in the proposals in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, with the best of intentions, is barking up the wrong tree.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 8:45 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, I shall answer the specific points raised very briefly, but I am happy to write to noble Lords to expand a little further.

Essentially, the acknowledgement in the subsection is the procedural step set out in Clause 13(7), which tells the petitioner what is the substantive step, as listed in the options in Clause 14. The complication, and why the clause is constructed as it is, is that the acknowledgement may in some instances also be a substantive step, because it may simply say, "Yes, we are happy to do that", and it will just be done. So it will be responding to a recommended action. That is the simple answer in response to the specific question, but I am happy to write to the noble Lord to give him some further examples if that would help.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply, to which I shall come in a minute. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, is quite right: people put forward petitions and proposals to councils and turn up to council meetings and say, "They did not listen", when what they mean is, "They listened but they did not agree with us". I think that he was actually agreeing with what I was saying, although he did not realise it.

It is very important that people understand two things—this is where the Minister and I completely agree. First, they should understand what will happen to their petition—how it will be dealt with, how it will be discussed, who will decide on it and what processes the petitioners, or perhaps the organiser, can take part in to discuss and debate it with the people who will make the decision. That is perfectly normal procedure in councils that do it well. We do not disagree about that at all.

Secondly, there is what the council does about the petition and how it decides what to do about it, whether to fill in the potholes or tell people to go to get a bucket and shovel and do it themselves, or whatever. It is true that the first stage—telling people how a petition will be dealt with—may end the matter there. If people are petitioning about a pile of rubbish, the council's operational services, or whatever they are called, may simply say, "We will remove it", and remove it the next day. They may have removed it before the arrival of the letter telling people that it will be removed, in a well ordered situation. There is no problem about that. That is exactly what I tried to set out in the rewrite of the clauses that I tabled for Grand Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, says that it is unreasonable to expect the Government to do that. I would say that I have done that for them; all they have to do is to tweak my amendments and everything will be all right; but I would say that, wouldn't I?

I am not sure that there is any point in the Minister writing to me to tell me how things will work. I think that I understand how things will work. I have spent a lot of time reading the Bill, listening to the Minister and reading her correspondence. We all understand how it will work. My complaint is that Clauses 13 and 14 do not set it out clearly. They are a muddle and ought to be rewritten so that they do set it out clearly. That is my point and I request that the Government look at them during the Bill's remaining passage through Parliament. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 59 withdrawn.

Clause 14 : Requirement to take steps

Amendments 60 and 61

Moved by Baroness Andrews

60: Clause 14, page 8, line 24, leave out "valid petition" and insert "petition to which section 12 applies"

61: Clause 14, page 8, line 27, leave out from "section" to end of line 30

Amendments 60 and 61 agreed.

Amendment 62 not moved.

Amendment 63

Moved by Lord Tope

63: Clause 14, page 9, line 10, leave out subsection (6)

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the Conservative Chief Whip for reminding me. I was so taken aback by the fact that the Opposition seem to have retired entirely from participating in this Bill, that I was a little confused.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Chief Whip, Whips

My Lords, since we are named, the Conservatives have a very active interest in this Bill, as we showed at Grand Committee, when we were able to enter into negotiations. My noble friend Lady Warsi has made clear that those negotiations came to fruition. Unlike the noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, we are not seeking to destroy this part of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has made it clear that that is the objective. We are prepared to sit here, listen to any valid points and reflect on them.

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful for that explanation, if a little puzzled by it, as the amendments recently not moved have actually only just been tabled. I am not sure what has happened since the government amendments—which we have all generally welcomed—went down. The Conservatives tabled amendments and now they are sitting in silence for long periods during this Bill. I would normally welcome silence from the Conservatives. I hope that it is a habit that will catch on.

Now that I have been corrected, I am moving Amendment 63 and speaking to Amendment 65. As I assume that the Conservatives will not speak to Amendment 64, I will do it for them. Amendment 63 leaves out subsection (6) of Clause 14. The preceding subsection (5) concludes by saying that,

"the authority must take one or more steps in response to the petition".

That is quite reasonable. Of course it should.

Subsection (6) was referred to by the Minister in Grand Committee as an "indicative list". At the risk of sounding like a Minister, that is unnecessary. I would go further and say that it is potentially misleading, even dangerous.

We discussed lists in Grand Committee. An indicative list always carries a danger as regards what is and is not on it and why. Should any petitioners actually read this Bill when it is enacted, the list will be potentially misleading and dangerous by suggesting to them that if they produce a petition, it might be successful, which would be good news, and that it might be considered at a meeting of the authority, which they would probably expect. The provision goes on to say that the authority could hold an inquiry, or a public meeting, or commission research and so on, which raises all sorts of expectations of what an authority might do. That is completely unnecessary. A local authority can decide to do any, or all, or even none of those things in response, provided that it takes steps in response to the petition as required by subsection (5). If we are to have anything, I prefer Amendment 64 in the name of the Conservatives, which simply says:

"A principal local authority's petition scheme must secure that appropriate steps are taken in response to the petition".

That virtually repeats subsection (5) but at least it is a better catch-all than the indicative list in subsection (6). As I have said, that may give rise to all sorts of expectations from anyone who chooses to look it up and, most importantly, is absolutely unnecessary.

In Amendment 65, we accept that if we are to have this indicative list in subsection (6), surely it must be appropriate to include the fact that a local authority is quite likely to be operating executive arrangements and that the petition is more likely to be referred to the appropriate cabinet member or council leader than to a public inquiry or public meeting. Yet the indicative list does not refer to that at all. Perhaps that is another illustration of the danger of lists, particularly indicative ones; things can be left out or assumed to be covered in some other way that is not clear or not specified. Our intention is not to destroy the clause, or even the chapter, but to accept that, if we are to have it, it should be clearer and more specific and should not include indicative lists that may well be misleading. With the intention of being helpful, I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I absolutely appreciate that the noble Lord is trying to be helpful by tabling Amendment 63. We debated this in Committee, and I am afraid that we disagree about what is to be achieved by this indicative list. I cannot add a huge amount to what I said before. We are doing things in the Bill to make it clear to local people what is served by petitioning their councils for improved services or whatever.

We included Clause 14(6) to illustrate some of the things—this is not an exhaustive list, by any means—that the authority could do in response to the petition. It certainly does not limit the authority to doing anything. Our thinking was that if legislation for the first time requires local authorities to take action in response to active petitions, it would surely be positively helpful for the legislation to set out a range of actions that might be appropriate, quite simply so that people can see what the intentions of the legislation are in the Bill. The list simply has the legal effect of identifying the nature of the discretion that is being exercised by principal authorities, but it also serves to make it clear to local authorities that the steps that they take in response to petitions should be substantive. That will also be clear to the courts in the event of a legal challenge.

The noble Lord did not move Amendment 64, although he spoke to it, so I will say simply that it would make it less clear what kind of step it is appropriate to take in response to a petition, and it would give rise to far too many ambiguities. Let me give noble Lords an example of something that might seem appropriate but would not add a great deal to what exists already. That brings me to the issues that Amendment 65 raises.

Amendment 65 would add to the list in Clause 14(6) that the petition could be referred to the appropriate cabinet member or the council leader. It is an interesting suggestion, and I appreciate the rationale behind it. I know that noble Lords were concerned in Committee that the list should reflect the kind of sensible steps that authorities might want to take when they receive petitions. In fact, the amendment covers exactly the kind of things that local authorities will do when they receive a petition. The cabinet member and the council leader are both well placed to act on the petition. They have the power to make the request in the petition a reality, to launch a public consultation or an inquiry, or to hold a public meeting. That illustrates the key difference between the items listed in Clause 14(6) and Amendment 65. The items in Clause 14(6) are all public actions which citizens can see have been taken in response to their petition.

I really do understand the intentions behind Amendment 65, but I have a real fear that if this were added to Clause 14(6) it would give the impression that a council would have fulfilled its duties if it referred a petition to a cabinet member, notwithstanding the fact that that cabinet member might put it straight in the bin. That is because it is essentially an internal process, one for authorities to go through before deciding how they will respond to the petition: whether they will do what it asks for or follow through on any other steps. I am reluctant to add internal management processes on to the face of the Bill.

One suggestion in Clause 14 is for a similar "internal process", and it is there for a good reason. It enables petitions that address the provision of health services in the council's area to be properly directed to the overview and scrutiny committee, which has powers to scrutinise such matters. What we want to ensure, and what Clause 14(6) sets out, is the range of actions that might help resolve the issues raised by the petition. Petitioners could be invited to attend a public meeting or a cabinet member might want to commission some research to get a better understanding of the issue raised. Essentially, it is about a substantive response. As I have said, referring a petition to a cabinet member or council leader would be a necessary step, but would not be sufficient. It would indeed mean legislating to preserve the status quo.

I know that this is a disappointing response, but I hope that the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 9:00 pm, 17th March 2009

Again, my Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. This is another one of those points on which we simply disagree, but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 63 withdrawn.

Amendments 64 to 67 not moved.

Clause 15: Requirement to debate

Amendment 68

Moved by Baroness Andrews

68: Clause 15, page 10, line 6, leave out "validly"

Amendment 68 agreed.

Amendment 69

Moved by Lord Greaves

69: Clause 15, leave out Clause 15

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I have one substantive point to make, but in fact this entire clause ought to be removed. The suggestion that petitions with a higher threshold would have a status that enabled the petition organiser to require a debate in full council is not appropriate. Different councils debate things and do things in different ways. For example, in some councils, the appropriate place to discuss a petition is the area committee and taking the petition to the full council would not be appropriate if it is about something that occurs in a specific area, therefore the procedure under this legislation would probably be contrary to the council's standing orders.

The question of how petitions are dealt with and which body should debate them should be subject to local flexibility depending on the interests of the petitioners and the particular structures and institutions of a council. For example, in a large county council, people may want a petition to be debated in one of its area committees. Again I refer to my own county of Lancashire. People might not want a petition to be debated at a full county council meeting in Preston that might not happen for another two or three months when it could be debated at one of the Lancashire locals. These are joint committees of the county and the district which exist in each of the districts. That is just one example of what might be a more appropriate structure for debating the petition.

Once again the Government are trying to put all councils into the same straitjacket. They have been doing it for over 10 years and it is not something we approve of, but in this instance it is not a sensible proposal. Most councils have a procedure whereby members of the council can put down motions to full council. In some it may require just one councillor, but in others it may need two, three or four councillors. However, by and large, the procedure by which a matter can be debated in full council is by one councillor proposing it. That is the normal, democratic procedure and a councillor representing an area and its residents can do that. It would not be appropriate to have some kind of system which bypasses the normal council structures. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I am afraid that, again, this is something on which the noble Lord and I disagree in principle. This is an important provision which gives members of the public real influence over the issues which their elected representatives discuss. I bow to the noble Lord's experience but, because Clause 15 requires the principal local authorities to specify a threshold number of signatures which would give an automatic right for the matter raised in the petition to be debated by the full council, this will mean that members of the public will be able to put an item on to the agenda of local decision makers. Members of the public will be able to observe the debates and will know that all ward councillors can have their say on the petition. It is a genuine benefit.

We believe that the threshold should be high enough to ensure that full council meetings are not overwhelmed and that they have time to consider issues such as the authority's budget, but the threshold should be achievable. The national authority has the power to issue guidance as to the appropriate threshold figure, to specify by order a threshold figure that will apply to all principal authorities, or to direct a principal authority to amend its petition scheme, including the threshold specified in it, but in order to ensure that debates are held when a substantial number of people sign a petition we believe that the threshold should not be higher than 5 per cent of the population living within the local authority area. That is what we will put in our order-making power but it is very much the upper limit.

I return to my main argument that it is an important way forward for local communities to know that if sufficient people are concerned about an issue they will be heard and the matter will be debated by the full council. Of course, in practice, a council puts items on its agenda for full debate under different influences and for different reasons, and this additional right will be welcomed by local communities.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I believe this has been thought up by people who do not understand how councils work. I am sorry to say that but I really do believe it. It undermines representative democracy and the role of councillors as the people who take issues forward on behalf of their resident constituents.

The Minister said that people have a right to be heard. I could not agree more. I would not object if the Government came back with a statutory right for people who have an interest in an issue to be heard by the body that makes the decision, the council committee. I have been on councils that have been doing that for many years. People should have the right to be heard at the point of decision making, but a full council is not an appropriate place to have that debate. It may or may not allow the petitioners to speak and put forward their views but, because there are so many people there, the whole process is so formal that, usually and often, it is not the appropriate place to end the process.

Many councils already include a right in their standing orders for petitions to be received. If the right contained in this legislation is retained, people may regard this threshold as the point at which that right is triggered and existing rights may be removed. At the moment, that is the first part of the process when a petition comes in. People give notice that they want to present it to the council; they stand up and perhaps say a few words—or not, depending on the standing orders—then hand it in. It then goes through the process of being properly debated by the appropriate people in the council, which is when people have the opportunity to see the decision being taken in a democratic way. Full council as the end process is no good; by that time, decisions will have been made, whips will be on and the decision will be known before the meeting starts. If you take a petition to a council meeting at the start of the process, the whole thing is much more open and it can go to places where people will not have closed minds. The Government have got it the wrong way round. I am not against people presenting petitions to full councils or any other body, but the Government are being too rigid and prescriptive, and are likely to exclude people who can present petitions at the moment.

It is clear to me that consideration of these matters has not finished. I will be astonished if further amendments are not put to the Bill before it gets through Parliament, particularly in the House of Commons. I put forward these thoughts in a hopeful and constructive way. We are not trying to block this at all—we are on the same side as the Government in what we want to see—but we are worried about the way it is being done. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 69 withdrawn.

Clause 16: Requirement to call officer to account

Amendment 70

Moved by Baroness Andrews

70: Clause 16, page 10, line 21, leave out "validly"

Amendment 70 agreed.

Amendment 71

Moved by Lord Best

71: Clause 16, page 10, line 23, after "authority" insert "or relevant person from any of the organisations set out in section 2(2)(a) and (c) to (f)"

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench

My Lords, I shall speak also to the related Amendments 72 to 75. Before I get to the meat of the issue, perhaps I may make a rather more general remark or two. I find myself frequently in meetings where we talk about devolution, decentralisation and the shift of power from the centre to local authorities and to community organisations. It is great to be part of those discussions and to feel that that mood is a cross-party consensus view shared by Members of this House. At the same time, though, one is always anxious that local authorities just do not command the kind of local support and respect that that decentralisation, that move to devolution, implies.

The Bill is necessary. It promotes local democracy, tries out some new things and does some things differently, brings in petitions and attempts to find new ways of engaging people. We cannot feel complacent that everyone is comfortable with the way in which local authorities operate. This is about restoring people's faith in local government, increasing their confidence and involving more local people in the processes. My amendments are but a small part of a much bigger picture in which the trade-off for the political consensus about devolution is that there must be some change and some things being done that make a difference to how people feel involved and engaged in local processes.

The amendments relate to councils' overview and scrutiny functions following valid petitions. They extend the arrangements for holding officers to account from just a council's own staff to appropriate officers from partner organisations that operate in that council's area. I am grateful to the Local Government Association for preparing these amendments, which are intended to strengthen the accountability to the community of all local public officers while ensuring that the democratically elected council is at the heart of this process.

In Committee, there were some crossed wires, leading to clarification from the Minister that Clause 16 was not about public meetings that could turn into kangaroo courts where lowly officers were publicly pilloried by an angry mob. No, the holding of officers to account relates just to coming before and giving evidence to overview and scrutiny committees meeting in public. So, too, of course, does the proposal in these amendments for extending the list of individuals covered. The senior officers who would be covered by these amendments could come from the primary care trusts, police authorities, waste disposal authorities and others.

Select Committees of this House and another place summon civil servants and officers of public bodies, as well as their political masters. This has enhanced public scrutiny and shed light on public service provision. At the local level, holding officers to account from a range of local public bodies has similar merit. Indeed, since local authorities are being obliged to promote the work of such bodies and the public may, however unfairly, hold the local authority responsible for their actions, these amendments would make the position more equitable, while increasing accountability to the local community. They should improve scrutiny of the public bodies operating in the locality, thereby, to quote from the Bill's Title,

"promoting public involvement in relation to local authorities and other public authorities".

I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 9:15 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, we have some difficulty with the noble Lord's amendments. I understand very well what he is trying to achieve and I think that there is a good case for it in many respects, as many of the bodies to which he is referring do not have the same open, democratic accountability as do local authorities. The problem that we have is one of principle—a quite strongly held principle—which is that members, whether they are Members of Parliament of members of local authorities, are the ones who are accountable. It is a firm principle. In Committee, my noble friend Lord Greaves was corrected by the Minister when he made some perhaps injudicious remarks about civil servants. The Minister explained quite clearly and rightly that it is the Ministers who are responsible and that, if we wish to cast blame or aspersions, we do so on the Ministers, not on the officials who support them.

The same principle applies in local government: it is the officers who advise and support the members. Throughout my 35 years in local government, members have always called on and expected officers to be at committee meetings—overview and scrutiny, as it is now—to be questioned by councillors. But it is still the councillors who are responsible to the electorate for what is done and what is said. Those meetings, where councillors question officers, sometimes robustly, are held in public; the public and petitioners can hear it. But it is still the members who are responsible. I see the Minister nodding in agreement.

This clause, which the noble Lord seeks to extend, for reasons that I understand and sympathise with, breaches that principle. If this were to go ahead, I certainly think that it should apply beyond simply local authority officers. However, it is the principle that is wrong and, if the principle is wrong, the amendments to extend that principle must be equally wrong. We will not be able to support these amendments at this stage.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for what he said about the principle of the Bill and what it intends to do in order to proactively promote democracy. In Committee, he described this as the core business of local authorities. I am grateful for the graciousness of his opening remarks. I also welcome his amendment, with which I have some sympathy.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, has pre-empted the debate that we will have on the next set of amendments, but I certainly do not quarrel with him at all over his description of the accountability of elected members of local authorities. I hope to defend what we are doing in this clause while upholding that principle.

The noble Lord, Lord Best, did a superb job in explaining what Clause 16 is all about. He demolished the argument that we were somehow creating a kangaroo court in order to pillory junior members of authority staff—not at all. However, I should like to postpone discussion of this until the next group of amendments.

The noble Lord's amendments start from the position that the requirements in Clause 16 are important; they would extend them in a bid to strengthen local authorities' ability to act as advocates for their local communities. I welcome the fact that in principle the noble Lord, Lord Tope, accepts that. I welcome his focus, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Best, on the empowerment benefits that this could bring citizens. The noble Lord, Lord Best, described this as creating a more equitable and accountable arrangement. However, I do not think that the amendments would deliver quite what he is looking for.

Amendment 71 would apply Clause 16 to petitions that requested that a local authority officer or a relevant person from any of the range of connected authorities listed in Clause 2 attend a public meeting of the local authority. Those organisations include parish councils, police authorities, primary care trusts, NHS trusts, the National Offender Management Service or the governing body of a maintained school. The exception is the Homes and Communities Agency, which is listed in Clause 2 but which Amendment 71 would not include.

As I said, I have considerable sympathy with the intention behind the amendments. I appreciate their aim and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, who is not in his place, would do so, too. He noted in Committee that local authorities sometimes find themselves bearing the brunt of their constituents' ire in relation to decisions made by other public bodies over which the authority has no control. So the amendments are intended to give local authorities the ability to investigate such issues where they are raised by petitioners. Local authorities would be expected to require a relevant person from the organisation in question to attend a meeting of the overview and scrutiny committee and give evidence.

The reason why I say that the amendments as drafted may not achieve their aims is that overview and scrutiny committees can request that anyone attend their meetings and give evidence, but they have powers only to require officers of their own local authority or, in relation to health matters, an NHS body to do so. The amendments would place a requirement on principal local authorities that they would have no powers to meet if other bodies refused to co-operate.

I know that noble Lords opposite have expressed concern about the principles behind Clause 16, and we will come to those in the next group of amendments. They may be relieved to hear me sound a note of caution. I firmly believe that it is right for local people to be able to influence the way in which O&S committees hold the executive of a local authority to account. As I said, I am sympathetic to the amendments, but we have heard genuine concerns from noble Lords about the impact of the proposals in general, including the ability of O&S committees to manage their workloads. This should not prevent us from moving forward with measures that will genuinely empower citizens, but it is right to proceed carefully to assess how the powers would work in practice in relation to the officers of principal local authorities before we consider extending local authorities' powers to call relevant staff from other public bodies.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Best, will understand those concerns and why I cannot support Amendments 71 to 75, but I commend him for bringing them forward. I hope that he will agree to withdraw Amendment 71.

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench

My Lords, I detect rather muted support for my amendment at this stage. It is unlikely that we will see considerable devolution and decentralisation of power without some change to the way in which local authorities and other public authorities approach some of their tasks. To enhance and strengthen local government in the long term, we need to build on ways of working for the future. At this stage, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 71 withdrawn.

Amendments 72 to 75 not moved.

Amendment 76

Tabled by Lord Tope

76: Clause 16, leave out Clause 16

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

This amendment was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and is a measure about which she feels very strongly. As I said previously, it is a matter of considerable importance and principle to us. Therefore, I shall not move it at this time of night and will bring it back at Third Reading.

Amendment 76 not moved.

Clause 17: Review of steps

Amendment 77 not moved.

Clause 18: Supplementary scheme provision

Amendments 78 to 80

Moved by Baroness Andrews

78: Clause 18, page 12, line 32, leave out from "not" to end of line 33 and insert "petitions to which section 12 applies"

79: Clause 18, page 12, line 34, leave out "valid"

80: Clause 18, page 12, leave out lines 38 to 40

Amendments 78 to 80 agreed.

Amendment 81 not moved.

Clause 19: Powers of appropriate national authority

Amendment 82

Moved by Lord Tope

82: Clause 19, page 12, line 43, leave out subsection (1)

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

I speak also to Amendments 84 and 85.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Chief Whip, Whips

It might be appropriate to intervene. I am somewhat confused about a statement that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has just made in seeming to move an amendment and then saying that he was not moving it. He appeared to say that he would bring it back at Third Reading. Is he aware of the rules at Third Reading and has he discussed them with the Government Chief Whip, his own Chief Whip and with me? Is he aware that he is not in a position to make the statement that he may bring the amendment back at Third Reading?

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thought that we were on Amendment 82, not Amendment 76, so I shall continue. I cannot unsay what—

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Chief Whip, Whips

My Lords, I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, is unwilling to answer a straightforward question.

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

No, my Lords, I am dealing with the business that has been called—Amendment 82. That is what I am going to speak to. I am very grateful to the Conservative Chief Whip for putting on record that there are still Conservatives in the House, even though they remain silent except to correct me when I make human errors.

Amendment 82 has been called and I am moving it. It seeks to remove the power of the appropriate national authority, which is presumably the Secretary of State in England, to determine in effect what a local authority's petition scheme should or should not contain. Amendment 84 similarly seeks to weaken that provision. Throughout this discussion we have heard that the Government want to adopt a light-touch approach and that they do not wish to inhibit what local authorities do with their petition schemes beyond the most minimal requirements set out in the Bill. Therefore, it seems entirely unnecessary to us to have these reserve provisions, as it were, which allow the Secretary of State, or the appropriate national authority, to overrule what a local authority has determined, which must comply with the law. I have expressed my reservations and concerns about the guidance that we have not yet seen. The Minister aspires to it being light touch, yet Clause 19(4) says that the guidance,

"may include a model petition scheme".

The guidance could include a model petition scheme whether or not the relevant subsection is included in the Bill. Putting it in the Bill just reaffirms our concern that the guidance may not be as light touch as we are told. I would be reassured if that subsection were taken out, although I shall not be fully reassured until we see the guidance. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, these amendments deal with the powers set out in Clause 19 for the appropriate national authority to make orders and give directions to principal local authorities in relation to their petition schemes.

I remind the House that Clause 19(1) provides a power for the appropriate national authority to make orders about what should be in petition schemes, and what should not be in them. This power will be used for situations where, despite guidance and support, local authorities are failing to create schemes which are accessible and effective. Clause 19(3) sets out particular issues which these orders cover. Amendment 82 removes the power for the appropriate national authority to make these orders and Amendment 84 is consequential.

I have listened carefully to noble Lords and I appreciate that they have concerns about this power. I want to offer some reassurance. I am receiving notes because my draft has numbers of amendments deriving from some weeks ago so I shall have to cross-reference. The provision in Clause 19(1) is a fairly typical reserve power which has been scrutinised with the rest of the provisions in Clause 19 by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Clearly, the committee is expert in this matter and it is always quick to alert the House to any unusual or excessive delegation of powers. The DPRRC considered those provisions to be acceptable for good reason because they are standard practice. I can assure noble Lords that there is nothing sinister or unusual in their inclusion here.

We have been clear from the very start about our intentions in relation to Clause 19(1). Quite simply, our plans are to use this power to set a maximum threshold for the number of signatures required on a petition for it to trigger a debate of the full council. The proposal to have a maximum threshold of 5 per cent of the local population is an important one. It is unique. If we are to raise the profile of petitions as a mechanism to encourage people to influence local councils, it is obviously essential to have a sensible figure. If the power to fix such limits is not to be included in subordinate legislation, it would have to be in the Bill. I have listened to noble Lords telling me how much this Bill is overdetailed and I am not persuaded that adding a technical detail is a good idea. What happens if the figure we propose turns out not to be appropriate?

Outside the proposal to set a maximum threshold for triggering a debate of the full council, we are committed to keeping this power as a reserve to be exercised only where consultation with the sector or evidence indicates it is necessary; that is to say, if there is a clear need to act to ensure a minimum set of standards for citizens. I make this commitment again because it is important and puts the provision in perspective. Noble Lords might ask, if that is the case, why take the power at all? The first answer is simple: we are committed to ensuring that local authorities take seriously the petitions they receive, and this power clearly indicates that we are prepared to act if evidence shows that local authorities are not creating schemes which are accessible, effective and meet expectations.

This is not uncommon; for example, a similar provision is contained in the power of the well-being regime in the Local Government Act 2000. The principle of giving discretion to local authorities with scope to intervene if necessary, in this case enabling local authorities to set out their petition scheme but taking a power to step in should those schemes not be sensible and effective is, therefore, not a new one. In the case of the well-being regime, we have never exercised the power in question and have no present intention of doing so. We hope that, in the case of petitions, the existence of the power will ensure that it does not need to be used.

The second answer is that we recognise that legislation is not always a precise science. Situations change, evidence emerges and some things are simply too detailed to put into the Bill. We all agree that secondary legislation is there for a purpose. Continually overseeing minor amendments to primary legislation is not a good use of parliamentary time. I hope I have reassured the noble Lord of the principle behind the provision in subsection (1) and that he will consider withdrawing Amendment 82.

Amendment 85 removes subsection (6) from Clause 19. This provision permits the appropriate national authority to direct a principal local authority to amend its petition scheme if an authority were to set an inappropriately high threshold for the number of signatures required to receive a response to a petition. In this instance, the appropriate national authority could make a targeted intervention without the need to exercise the order-making power and require an authority to set a lower threshold. That would avoid disruption to other principal authorities which were operating effective schemes.

Noble Lords are perhaps concerned that this provision is somehow part of a government job-creation scheme, and I take their concern to be that there will be staff dedicated to monitoring petition schemes on a daily basis. That is not the intention and it will not be the case. As I mentioned in Grand Committee in our discussion of impact assessments, the Government are committed to reviewing the impact of all policies, and the petitions requirements in this chapter are no exception. We are committed to carrying out a review of the petitions duty within three years of implementation, and because the requirements set out in the Bill put an emphasis on local authorities making their decision-making processes more transparent, including providing clear and accessible information on their website, a use of disproportionate staff resource will not be required.

In summary, I assure noble Lords that this power of intervention would not be used other than in extremis, if at all, and certainly not without good evidence that the local authority in question was failing to uphold the requirements set out in this chapter. Should such an instance occur, nothing would happen without prior communication with the authority in question. The provision makes it clear that we are committed to ensuring that standards everywhere can be raised to those of the best, so that people can be confident that their concerns will be taken seriously no matter where they live. Where one or two local authorities fail to meet those standards, the provision confirms that we are not in the business of disrupting the good practice of the rest; instead, we will take action in relation to those few.

I hope that the noble Lord is content with that explanation and that he will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 9:30 pm, 17th March 2009

My Lords, perhaps all our voices are going at this time of night. I am of course grateful to the Minister for her assurances and reassurances, but I do not need reassurances from her; I have no doubt whatsoever of her good faith and good intentions in all this. However, we have said on other occasions that it is just possible that one day there may be a different national authority—a Secretary of State with perhaps less benevolent intentions—and the power will still be there to be used.

In a sense, the Minister is saying that, in the end, the Government do not trust local authorities. I understand the desire to bring everyone up to the best standards, as the Minister said, but that will never be achieved, because by definition if you are best, you are better than everyone else. We all want to improve standards. I perhaps have greater faith in local government than the drafters of the Bill do, because although not all local authorities will operate the petitions process as well as others—that will always be the case—generally authorities will want to do this well and many are doing it already. They will want to make it work, and that will happen. I hope that the Minister is right in her reassurances that it is very unlikely that these provisions will ever be used. We all join in hoping that. If they are, the intentions of the legislation will have failed, and none of us wants that to happen. I will of course beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 82 withdrawn.

Amendments 83 to 86 not moved.

Clause 20: Handling of petitions by other bodies

Amendment 87 not moved.

Clause 21: Orders

Amendment 88

Moved by Lord Patel of Bradford

88: Clause 21, page 14, line 5, after "State" insert ", other than an order referred to in subsection (2A),"

Photo of Lord Patel of Bradford Lord Patel of Bradford Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, government Amendments 88, 89, 90 and 91 give effect to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee's recommendation that any order-extending provisions on petitions to parish or community councils should be subject to affirmative resolution. The DPRRC agreed that the negative resolution procedure is appropriate for any orders extending petitions provisions to the other bodies listed in Clause 20(2). Parish councils are often at the heart of local communities and deliver services which communities care strongly about. It is, therefore, right and proper that local people should be able to raise their concerns with their parish council, and we will work closely with the sector to develop the most appropriate way that people can do this through petitions.

I confirm that we have no current intention to apply a petitions duty to all local authorities included in the list in Clause 20(2). However, if there was evidence in the future that a requirement on these bodies to respond to petitions would increase people's feelings of influence over local decisions, it would be useful to create such a duty without a need for further primary legislation. We would of course carry out a public consultation before exercising these powers.

Amendments 88, 89, 90 and 91 resolve an issue which I know the Conservative Front Bench felt strongly about in Grand Committee. It responds to the argument that greater parliamentary scrutiny is needed when new requirements are imposed on parish and community councils, which have more limited resources than other types of local authority. I hope the noble Lords will welcome this amendment, which I commend to the House.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Shadow Minister (Community Cohesion), Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I raised my concerns about the duties and responsibilities potentially being placed on small and under-resourced authorities at Grand Committee. I cited the burdens that would be placed specifically on parish councils and the concerns about the placing of such burdens without clear affirmative action rather than by default. I am pleased that the noble Lord has taken away those concerns and I am pleased with the amendments tabled. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield and I are pleased to give our names to them.

Amendment 88 agreed.

Amendments 89 to 91

Moved by Baroness Andrews

89: Clause 21, page 14, line 6, at end insert—

"(2A) The Secretary of State may not make a statutory instrument containing an order under section 20 which relates to the handling of petitions by a parish council in England unless a draft of the instrument containing the order has been laid before, and approved by, a resolution of each House of Parliament."

90: Clause 21, page 14, line 8, after "Ministers" insert ", other than an order referred to in subsection (4),"

91: Clause 21, page 14, line 9, at end insert—

"(4) The Welsh Ministers may not make a statutory instrument containing an order under section 20 which relates to the handling of petitions by a community council in Wales unless a draft of the instrument containing the order has been laid before, and approved by, a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales."

Amendments 89 to 91 agreed.

Amendment 92 not moved.

Clause 22: Interpretation

Amendments 93 and 94

Moved by Baroness Andrews

93: Clause 22, page 14, line 27, leave out from "organiser"" to end and insert "in relation to a petition made to a principal local authority, means—

(a) the person designated in the petition as the person with whom the authority may deal in relation to the petition, or

(b) such other person as agrees with the authority to be the person with whom the authority may deal in relation to the petition;"

94: Clause 22, page 14, leave out line 30

Amendments 93 and 94 agreed.

Amendment 95 not moved.

Clause 23: Duty of public authorities to secure involvement

Amendment 96

Moved by Baroness Andrews

96: Clause 23, page 15, line 16, leave out paragraph (j)

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, these amendments relate to the duty of listed public authorities to secure the involvement of representatives of interested persons in the exercise of their functions.

I will deal with the government amendment first, and then I will address Amendment 97, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I hope the noble Lord does not mind if I address his amendment although he has not spoken to it.

Amendment 96 is a minor technical amendment to take out the reference to an economic prosperity board and combined authority in subsection (2)(j). I explained in Committee that this amendment was required because economic prosperity boards in combined authorities are in fact best-value authorities by virtue of the amendment already made to Section 1 of the Local Government Act 1999 by paragraph 91 of Schedule 6 to the Bill. They will therefore be under the duty to involve contained in Section 138 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, so they are redundant here.

Amendment 97, which was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, proposes adding all those partner authorities to which the duty to co-operate to agree local performance targets applies, as listed in Section 104 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. As I have already explained, this amendment is unnecessary. We used the list in Section 104 as a basis for those partner authorities to which we are extending the duty to involve. However, it is not a straightforward matter of adopting the same list. It has been necessary to consider each of the bodies and whether it is necessary or desirable to include them in the list for the duty to involve in this Bill. A number of the bodies on the list proposed by the amendment are best-value authorities, which already have a duty to involve under Section 138 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007.

We believe that others have a comparable duty or sufficient requirements in other legislation to involve interested persons, so that further provision in this Bill is not necessary.

Amendment 96 agreed.

Consideration on Report adjourned.

House adjourned at 9.45 pm.